How to write a (crime) novel #2

Last time, I gave you some pointers on how to get going with writing and encouraged you to take your writing seriously. This time I’m going to suggest ways of finding the characters to tell your story.

A piece may start with a character or an experience or a feeling or an image or a dream… or in any number of ways. But ultimately we have to find the voice or voices which will tell the story to our readers. The days of the omniscient narrator – who sees, hears, understands everything – beloved of nineteenth century novel are pretty much gone. Readers expect the characters within the story to narrate what is happening. Generally this means that, as in life, the tale which is being told will depend on the perspective of the tell-er. We live in a era where philosophically we accept there are many truths, many ways to explain an experience, and this is reflected in our literature.

So in writing we have point-of-view characters, the one or ones who will narrate our story. Whether we be using first or third person, we (and our readers) will be discovering what’s happening through these characters’ eyes, their ears, their bodies. We need to get inside them for this to happen.

It is true that I am advocating a particular type of writing here. There are crime and other genres of novel which are very plot led and where the characters are not deeply explored. Some writers and readers prefer this approach. However, I don’t, I am not that kind of writer or reader, and if you aren’t either then this blog post is for you.

I believe strongly any character we create has at least some aspect of ourselves within it. Even though we might model the character on someone we know, seen or imagined, we are mediating them through us, so parts of our self will inevitably stitch itself in there. I am also a firm believer that we have many potential selves within our self and these can be given voice through creative writing. If we write freely enough within our writing journal, then the voices will emerge.

We can also find characters by people watching, keeping our senses and minds open to how those around us are. A snatched overheard conversation in a cafe might set us off to finding a character to tell our story. Listening and internalising how others speak, can certainly help us to create dialogue and voices which are realistic and engaging.

Hopefully something here is sparking off ideas about how our narrator(s) might be. Now the only way to get to know them enough to allow them to develop as characters is to write about them and write using their voices. If there is one ‘how to’ book I would recommend it is The Novelist’s Guide by Margret Geraghty (  In it she suggests keeping a diary as a character for a week and also putting a scrap book together using words, images, things pulled out of magazines or off the internet, to begin to get to know this character – this person’s – likes and dislikes, desires, motivations, fears… Our characters also need a back-story, we need to know about their parents, maybe even their grandparents, even if none of this comes into the final novel.

When the character becomes a person to us the writer, we have a fighting chance of the reader engaging with them as such.

There is an oft repeated piece of advice: show don’t tell. What does this mean when it comes to characterisation? I think it means don’t write, ‘Steph was scared’, describe what it is like for Steph when she is scared. The problem is sometimes the ‘showing’ can fall into cliché; Steph’s teeth chatter or maybe she has butterflies in her stomach. One way to avoid cliché is to pay attention to how emotions feel inside our self and explore this in our writing journals. What does fear/love/hate (delete as necessary) feel like from the inside, is a question I’ve often posed for my students.

What are your tips for creating characters which can carry your story and engage readers?

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