I do not want you to love my characters. I am quite serious about that. I do not even want you to like them. They are all fallible creatures who do not always do what they should. They are full of idiosyncrasies, flaws, and sometimes downright poor judgment.
Revile them and admire them. Root for them to win and cheer when they fall. Get passionate about getting angry with them. Pity them and feel vindicated at their suffering. Share their emotions and their troubles, love them, hate them, and empathize with them. But please don’t just love them.
A character who seems endearing, drawing you to their side in their pursuit of evil, might just reveal their true driving force is not entirely for purely good reasons.
The victim who you might sympathize with, rooting for when things get rough and cheering them proudly when they rally their strengths to pull him or herself out of trouble, may prove to be more the cause of the trouble than the antagonist is.
The bad guy, committing atrocious behaviors, pulling you into his web of evil until you despise him and want only to see his downfall come to him in a most inglorious way, might throw you with a show of tenderness. He might just make you sympathize with him when you know you should hate him.
Making characters that draw the reader in is not about making the reader simply love or hate them. They need to feel what the character feels. They need to love, hate, and sympathize with that character. Root for them even as they want to see them fall because you are supposed to want to see the bad guy lose.
Characters do not have to be all good or all bad. In fact, I would say they should never be all one or the other. They should be a complex layering of traits that include both. Even the vilest creature has feelings; dreams and desires, loss and sorrow, loneliness and love. They have a flaw and that flaw is their own emotions. The gentlest of characters, pure of heart and soul, have a dark side beneath. They are capable of anger and resentment, even of acts of revenge.
Every character should have a hidden back-story. This is what gives them life. Even the smallest bit player should have one. That waitress who served the coffee looks tired, but really, she is sad. You don’t have to reveal why she is sad. That is just one more mystery that gives a little more depth to the scene where the true focus is your protagonist or antagonist. Make the mystery of the waitress’s personal life draw on the personality of the character who is the true focus. After all, your character did notice the lines of exhaustion hide a deeper sadness.
Drop hints and clues about your characters’ back-stories. Make the reader feel they are slowly drawing the character out of their shell and learning just a little bit about them as they progress through the story. Let the reader be drawn a little at a time into your character’s life, their personality. Let them yearn for more, drawn to dig deeper into your character’s psyche as you see fit to reveal it.
The reader becomes more familiar with the character with each revelation, feeling a little closer to them like a new friend, wanting to know more. As you draw out a little more back-story, those secrets add to the drive that pushes the story forward. That simple story is no longer so simple. What other secrets do the characters have? What flaws? What strengths? What new lines of drama will wind into the story, adding more layers of sub story?
MEET THE CHARACTERS
Detective Jim McNelly is perhaps the hero of the story, if anyone can be described as such. He works with missing persons and homicide cases, taking each case personally as his own personal failure for not stopping the victimization of the victim before it could happen. For a hero, he has a lot of flaws. He is obese by as a result of his own failings, which is the cause of additional health problems and exacerbates his insomnia, which in turn causes him to feed his obesity. He is no people person and doesn’t much like most people.
And yet, Jim McNelly honestly cares about his job and the victims. He has a lot of back-story that has not been revealed, including hints dropped about his wife.
Detective Michael Underwood is a likeable kind of guy. He is described as being the kind of guy who is just as at ease at grandma’s quilting group as watching sports with the guys. Even the nervous and suspicious nurse Molly can’t help but feel a tingle of excitement at the idea he could possibly have an interest in her, as impossible as she knows it is.
Michael Underwood is perhaps a bit too obsessed with protecting their victim, an obsession that itself has its own back-story, almost a personality of its own.
Lawrence Hawkworth is an investigative reporter with the InterCity Voice, who is described as being a man of less than moral morals. And yet he and Jim McNelly have a shared back-story. He is the one person McNelly would trust with his life, despite McNelly’s dislike for the man. It’s kind of a love-hate friendship, like unrelated brothers.
Jane Doe, the victim and the sole survivor of the killer’s madness doesn’t even know her own back-story. Her own weakness, her amnesia, puts her directly on a path to her own destruction. Or does it? She has a surprising reserve of personal strength, something gained from her own unknown past.
Kathy Kingslow is a train wreck of a woman. She is a weak creature who knows only one thing, how to survive an abusive relationship. She does not even know how to escape one, if she could get up the courage to. She also has the potential to become one of the most powerful characters in the story, if she can pull herself up off the floor and put a little courage into her spine. She has a hidden strength, the killer’s own inexorably being drawn to her.
The Killer is nothing but evil, right? The killer is driven by a compulsion, his reality blurred between past and present, with a dark secret locked in a fractured mind. But he is also tormented by his own actions and desperate to stop killing. The search for the killer will lead to his dark secret buried in the past.
The appearance of the mystery man is the embodiment of the ultimate back-story of Where the Bodies Are. He enters the story just at the moment when the as yet unidentified killer is reaching a plateau of temptation by the dangling bait that is Jane Doe, the one victim who escaped alive. He quickly becomes McNelly’s prime suspect in the kidnapping and murders of multiple women. His arrival embodies the pivot point where the story climaxes and the killer is being drawn into the readers’ sight from the shadows of the story. That back-story is revealed when you take a step back in time with The McAllister Farm to learn the secret behind the bodies.
William McAllister is a hard man. He demands respect from everyone he encounters and absolute obedience from his family. His children respect him with the fear of a harsh disciplinarian. He keeps his family apart from the community around them, not allowing them to have friends or participate in the community. Visitors to his farm are threatened off, and his children know well the sting of his hand. William is also absolutely dedicated to the safety and well-being of his family. As stern as he is, nothing matters more to him than his family.
The entire community is distrustful and hateful towards William for his strange ways, but that does not stop him from doing what he thinks is the right thing to do without hesitation.
Marjorie McAllister is a frightened deer of a woman, always nervously wringing her hands. She silently disapproves when William strikes the children, not brave enough to stand up to her own husband. She leans on his strength too. As desperately lonely as she is, his keeping her apart from her family and community is like a safety net for her. She does not have to face awkward situations if she never leaves the farm. But, when push comes to shove, Marjorie finds a hidden well of strength to stand against the hostility of the townspeople against her family.
Jason McAllister is the oldest child of William and Marjorie. He has the expected problems of a ten year old who is different because his family is different. He takes the brunt of the community’s sense of his family’s strangeness through his difficult interactions with the kids and teachers as school. Jason is expected to be more man than child and it weighs heavily on him. He is a troubled youth, something that his father comes to realize just how deeply troubled in the most disturbing way.
Sophie McAllister is the youngest child and as such has the childhood freedoms and innocence her brother Jason envies and is not afforded. Naturally, this breeds some resentment in Jason. She also in a way symbolizes the need each family member feels to protect the family as a whole. Her very innocence acts as a contrast to the events surrounding her family.
Sheriff Rick Dalton certainly is not a favorite of the community when he fails to both catch the killer stalking young women in the area before another body turns up and listen to the needs of his frightened community. A man of the cloth is threatened, the school principal is sent scurrying, and everyone except the sheriff seems to know just what kind of a monster the McAllister man is. Or, Rick Dalton is simply a wise sheriff who knows that what appears to be is not always what is.
Book three, which is still a work in progress, will bring both of these stories together, finally revealing answers to some of the questions left hanging as the characters of both books are brought together in a disturbing conclusion that may very well leave a new trails of bodies.
Link to reviews of Where the Bodies Are on Angie’s Diary
Follow L. V. Gaudet: