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
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
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
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
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.