Friday, May 25, 2012


More and more often lately, I read that characters make a book, that readers want interesting characters they can empathize or even fall in love with. To say nothing of the evil ones who fascinate us. (Hannibsl Lechter, anyone?) Personally, I’ve always been a “plot” person, so that’s something I’ve had to learn.

Some years ago I wrote an article (actually it’s on my Blog under Writing Tips) about the difference between writers who are “word” people and those who are “story” people and how to learn to do both to help you get published. That still applies, but now--in addition to adding description--I’d add words that explore character. I’ve found that when I’ve finished a first draft of my novel, I must go back and “flesh out” my characters. It seems I learn about them as I write the book, as opposed to writers who don’t put a word on paper until they do a complete character biography including not just appearance, but schools, philosophy, phobias, family and friends.

Remember the movie “Ruthless People” starring Bette Midler and Danny Devito? It illustrates the fact that we love “larger than life” characters. Midler and DeVito weren’t, technically, the protagonists of the story. That designation belonged to the young couple who had been wronged by the DeVito character and--although too timid even to kill bugs--decided to get even by kidnapping his wife (Midler) and demanding ransom. But Devito won’t pay the ransom, because he has a girlfriend on the side and wants his wife dead anyway. And the girlfriend has a boyfriend who... Heck, rent the film from Netflix and enjoy one of the funniest and cleverest comedies ever made.

My point is that we tend to remember the quirky characters. I can’t even remember the names of the young couple.

As for books, the same thought occurred to me while reading DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by P.D. James. As I’m sure you know, James is a famous British author of mysteries and this one is placed in England seven years after the time of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen. However, to my surprise, James’s book received an average of only 3-1/2 stars on Amazon, whereas COLD APRIL, my historical novel, received 4-1/2, including three five-star reviews. How could that be?

My theory is that, while James did a masterful job of capturing Austen’s style, it wasn’t what present-day mystery readers are looking for. Jane Austen, although not a member of high society, was upper middle-class (her brothers attended Oxford and their home was filled with books) and so were all her characters. Not a quirky one in the bunch, and all behave in a civilized manner with perfect grammar. Today’s readers expect today’s style. Austen--and James--had no life-threatening situation confronting them, as I had with the Titanic sinking in my novel.

In fact, I remember a quote from a well-known writer at a conference. He said (approximately) “Movies have been around for 100 years, television for fifty. Sure you can write like Charles Dickens if you want to and have pages of description before any action begins. But remember, the audience for that kind of book-- is DEAD!”

I hope you will give me your opinions, but be aware I’ll be on vacation for the next three weeks and won’t post anything more until I return. But I hope to read your comments “en route.”

Jane Austen
P.D. James
“Ruthless People”


  1. Phyllis, enjoyed your post.

    I have a picture in mind and on paper of what my main characters will be like. But I never know their true personalities until I begin writing. Things creep up that I hadn't planned, a quirk or something else. My characters sort of develop themselves.

    Love that quote, lol. It makes perfect sense!

    1. Jannine:
      You said it. I, too, never know my characters true personalties until I write about them. Isn't it wonderful when "things creep up" and you suddenly think, "yes, that's just like her!" Thanks for sharing


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