Broken by Travis Thrasher
Adam Blumer

Adam Blumer graduated from Bob Jones University with a degree in print journalism. Since childhood he has been writing stories and has since been published in a variety of periodicals. His novel, Fatal Illusions, is now available from Kregel Publications. He lives in Michigan with his wife and their two daughters. Visit Adam at his website:

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Making Character and Plot Best Friends

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time I scoffed at the notion of writing character-driven novels. I used to think plot was all that mattered and that character-driven stories were those sleepy, plodding tales that were more pretentious than readable. But that was before I began working on my first novel under the guidance of a Writer’s Digest School writing mentor.

Tons of articles have been written about whether character or plot comes first, and I have no desire to open the debate here. Instead I’d prefer to describe how the process worked for me. Did my story come first? Or did my characters? Which came first—the chicken or the egg? The fact is the answer is irrelevant. All I know is that in the organic process of planning my suspense thriller—in particular, of envisioning who my protagonist and antagonist should be in response to a story idea—character and plot became best friends. Let me show you how.

On the day my wife, Kim, miscarried our first child—praise God, we now have two wonderful daughters—I didn’t see our heartbreaking sense of loss as novel material. But isn’t that how God works? He puts us on a path, and all those bumps and scrapes we experience along the way serve an important purpose, though we may not always see their value in the here and now. Only later, when I was working on my suspense novel, Fatal Illusions (Kregel, March 2009), did I realize that the loss of a child was exactly what I needed for my creepy story about a serial killer who hunted women with blond hair, blue eyes, and wire-rim glasses.

My Protagonist

A believable character must possess strong, logical motivations, especially in a suspense thriller that takes readers on a ride with multiple and, hopefully, unexpected twists and turns; in other words, I needed a powerful backstory of experiences that would make readers ache along with my lead. For my story about an overprotective, paranoid mother whose daughter falls into the sights of a diabolical killer, I needed a woman who had already suffered great loss—in fact, devastating, crushing heartbreak of the kind that evokes the greatest reader sympathy.

I decided that Gillian Thayer, my lead, had lost a child six months before the story began—in fact, only moments after birth. It was essential that readers understand what was at stake; Gillian would experience incomprehensible loss if the killer successfully achieved his goal by claiming her only surviving child as his next victim. Gillian’s goal, of course, was to stop him.

But then I realized that this degree of loss wasn’t enough. I needed more. Not to belittle stillbirths, but her overprotective paranoia needed to be believable, and a single stillbirth didn’t seem sufficient. So I decided that Gillian lost not only one child but two, in fact, twins. Throw in many years of fertility treatments and her inability to conceive (her unfulfilled wish)—and voila! Her daughter, Crystal, was the only child she had left, so you can bet she kept her eye on Crystal. By the story’s end, her overprotective nature, though smothering to a fault, became her greatest strength against a relentless killer.

My Antagonist

In like manner I created a “bad guy” who wasn’t your run-of-the-mill unsavory character like so many others. I wanted one who would elude the police, the FBI, and even the reader. So where did I find the seed idea for Haydon Owens, amateur magician and serial killer? He emerged from the pages of history.

During college I minored in history and have always loved reading about unusual historical events and people. One character who has always fascinated me is Harry Houdini, the famous magician who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. Ruth Brandon’s captivating biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, paints a three-dimensional picture of what this eccentric escape artist was like deep down in his soul.

I read Brandon’s biography just for fun, but a “what if” began to simmer in the back of my mind. What if the killer in my story was an escape artist like Houdini? What if he strangled his victims with a magician’s trick rope, a weapon integral to his identity? What if he could escape from handcuffs and jail cells? What if the police, after capturing him, couldn’t keep him behind bars? And what if the reader thinks the novel is over after his arrest—only to discover that he has escaped? Throw in an unusual motive, and he’s elusive in more ways than one.

Tips for Making Character and Plot Best Friends

As you can tell, I had a blast plotting and writing Fatal Illusions, but only after I admitted to myself that my suspense novel was indeed a character-driven story beyond a suspenseful plot. Only then did I do the work necessary to better understand my characters and what they were striving for. Once I realized what made them tick, the novel practically plotted itself. My story, in fact, emerged from my characters.

This article title is true of authors who settle for predictable stock characters and don’t go deep enough; in fact, this title was true of me until I got to work on my characterizations. What novelists don’t know about their characters can hurt them if they settle for the easy and familiar when they could dig deeper and do so much more.

My advice? Look at your past experiences for story material. Add a twist to a difficult episode in your life, such as a miscarriage, and you could have the makings of an intriguing character and story. After all, life’s events contribute to the people we are.

Read about people who fascinate you. Their stories could provide the “what if” you need to develop an unforgettable character who drives plot.

In summary, develop multilayered characters, be sure you understand what makes them tick, and watch your novel’s plot fall into place. Then, when you think you know everything about your characters, go even deeper and raise the stakes. In the long run you’ll provide a deeper story, and readers will be glad they picked up your novel.


Fatal Illusion