I am delighted today to be the next stop on The Body on the Doorstep blog tour. I have a fascinating post exclusively for Carole's Book Corner by AJ MacKenzie on 'Building Characters'.
Kent, 1796. Smugglers’ boats bring their illicit cargoes of brandy and tobacco from France to land on the beaches of the Channel coast.
Shocked to discover a dying man on his doorstep - and lucky to avoid a bullet himself – our alcoholic Reverend Hardcastle, with a colourful past, finds himself entrusted with the victim's cryptic last words.
Who is the young man? Where did he come from, and who killed him? Why, five minutes later, was a Customs officer shot and killed out on the Marsh? And who are the mysterious group of smugglers known as the Twelve Apostles and why is the leader of the local Customs service so reluctant to investigate?
Ably assisted by the ingenious Mrs Chaytor, Reverend Hardcastle sets out to solve the mystery for himself. But smugglers are not the only ones to lurk off the Kent coast, and the more he discovers, the more he realises he might have bitten off more than he can chew.
The Body on the Doorstep is the first Romney Marsh Mystery by A. J. MacKenzie.
Get the characters right, and people will follow them. Get them wrong, make them unsympathetic or uninteresting, and no amount of clever plotting or whizzy dialogue will save you. Creating good characters is a craft, and like all good craft work, it takes time.
Long before ever setting down to write about our characters, we get to know them, not just as two-dimensional cut-outs but as ‘real’ people. We think about them as real people, someone one might have met. We work on understanding their psychology, their motives, their quirks and irrationalities, their likes and dislikes. Once the characters become whole people, their actions and words – their reactions to finding a dead body, for example, or to being confronted with an armed intruder, or even to receiving an invitation to dinner – should become natural. Their behaviour should be consistent with their personality, because they behave as real people do.
The first question we ask when developing a new character is: what does he/she look like? Are they tall or short? What colour is their skin, hair and eyes? What structure does their face have? How do they dress and groom themselves? These things are important as visual cues for the reader, but they also speak to self-image. How do these characters view themselves? When they look in the mirror, what do they see?
The next question is, what do they sound like? Does a female character have a high soprano voice, or she more of a mezzo or even a tenor? Will a man have a light voice or a deep one? What patterns of speech do they use? In The Body on the Doorstep, Mrs Chaytor usually has a light voice with just a hint of a fashionable drawl; that tells us something about her background. But in times of stress her voice changes, becomes more firmer, and the drawl disappears. That suggests a strong character, one who will not crack under pressure, but also one who puts up somewhat of a facade in public.
We spend a lot of time building back stories for our characters. Where did they come from, who were their parents, where were they educated; we sometimes draw family trees to help us understand a character’s ancestry. All this feeds into their psychology and their motives. Most of this background work never appears in the stories, but it is there in our heads. It helps us understand who these people are: and if we understand, hopefully our readers will understand as well.
Of course, not every character works out. Some never complete the process of fleshing out; some just don’t work as people. But that’s not a problem for us. If our characters don’t work, we kill them. Yes, it’s brutal, but hey. This is crime.
About the Authors
A.J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo. Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, medieval economic history and medieval warfare.
THE BODY ON THE DOORSTEP is their first novel.
Check out the other stops on the tour