Tag Archives: character development

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!


This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.


There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.


What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins


What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.


So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

The Brilliant Detective

Earlier this week, I was thinking about characterization and character development, specifically as it relates to detectives.  A detective represents the power of society in many ways, but none as well as in finding and catching criminals. Usually murderers. Often serial killers. As “good” characters, they must still be interesting, sympathetic, and somehow easy to relate to for the reader.  How to make a “good” character interesting?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Photo: Paul Grover)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Photo: Paul Grover)

We never seem to tire of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. I think he must be the standard against which all other fictional detectives are measured.  Since Doyle’s books, we’ve seen fan fiction, movies and TV shows using Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson as the primary characters.  What is it about Holmes that makes him so fascinating?

Holmes and Watson (original actors) (Photo from DVD)

Holmes and Watson (original actors) (Photo from DVD)

For one thing, he’s brilliant.  Doyle must have been brilliant himself to create and write him.  Holmes can be rather abrasive at times, though, and he’s eccentric to a fault.  Watson definitely puts up with a lot.  Holmes plays the violin, has a drug habit, and an ego bigger than a barn.  But we love him.  He makes the world right.  In other words, he’s not at all a goody-two-shoes or an idealist about humanity and justice.  He has flaws.  And he’s brilliant.

So, I started thinking about other “brilliant” detectives, wondering if they have been able to fill Holmes’ large shoes for us.  The first that came to my mind was DCI Morse as played by John Shaw on Inspector Morse for Masterpiece Mystery.  Writer Colin Dexter created him in the original novels. In keeping with the Holmesian tradition of abrasiveness, Morse is known for his short temper and being a curmudgeon.  He can be downright difficult.  But he doesn’t like dead bodies at all, i.e. he stands away from the victim at a crime scene as he quizzes the medical examiner.  He prefers not to go to the morgue for the autopsy report.  He drinks too much — it landed him in the hospital in one episode.  He’s particular about his red jaguar.  But his powers of observation  surpass anyone around him.  He loves classical music, especially opera, and is a champion at solving crossword puzzles.  He’s also a slightly paunchy middle-aged guy who likes the ladies but whose love life leaves him alone most of the time.  Poor Sergeant Lewis has to endure Morse who has no illusions about humanity.  But Morse is absolutely brilliant.

DCI Morse (John Thaw)

DCI Morse (John Thaw)

It’s interesting to note that the Brits are masters at creating interesting and brilliant detectives.  Adam Dagleish, for example.  Jane Tennison. And most recently, a TV series about the young DCI Morse in which we learn what Morse’s first name is, Endeavour.  What parent names a kid Endeavour?  No wonder he develops into a curmudgeon.  This series interests me specifically because it shows us how Morse developed into the detective he was in middle-age, the people who supported and challenged him, his blunders as well as longer glimpses into his personal life.

(copyright ITV/MammothScreen)

Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) (copyright ITV/MammothScreen)

Finally, an American detective of brilliance who can stand proudly with his British comrades: Adrian Monk.  I stumbled onto Monk while in the hospital, and I was incredibly grateful I did because watching his exploits made my hospital stay much more pleasant.  Monk adds a tragic personal life to the mix: his beloved wife Trudy was murdered and her case has never been solved.  He suffered a mental breakdown after her death and left his job as a detective with the San Francisco Police.  After he recovers, he works as a private detective. Soft-spoken and vulnerable, Monk suffers from OCD, i.e. obsessive-compulsive disorder.  His OCD also makes him incredibly observant about details and solving the puzzles that are murder investigations.  The thing I loved about this show and this detective was the ultimately positive light they shone on Monk’s OCD.  Yes, it could be unbearably painful and debilitating, and they show that.  But it also makes him a brilliant detective.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

I cannot stand an unsolved mystery.  I can be very compulsive myself once I’m hooked on a detective.  It is so comforting to watch a brilliant one solve a mystery and take a world that was in disorder and give it order….




“Dexter” the Final Season (8)

Dexter Morgan is and will remain one of the most interesting characters in fiction for me, joining Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in all his sociopathic glory.  I continue to read Jeff Lindsay’s novels — a new one is out this fall, Dexter’s Final Cut — and had looked forward with anticipation to viewing the DVDs of the eighth season of the Showtime series Dexter.  I wrote about the seventh season here.


The first episode of the final season makes clear that we will be going through some sort of journey involving the relationship between Dexter and his sister, Debra.  She is wracked with guilt, self-medicating to the extreme, and working as a private investigator for Jake Elway.  Dexter seems untouched by the events in the last episode of the previous season.  His focus is on Harrison, now 4, and his job.  Meanwhile, a new serial killer has surfaced in Miami, labeled the Brain Surgeon for his gruesome MO — he cuts the top of the head off his victims, and carefully scoops out a specific part of the brain.  The Miami Metro team is going through change: Batista is now their CO, and he’s urging Quinn to take the sergeant’s exam.  Masuka learns that he’s a father.  Into the usual chaos strides Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a neuropsychiatrist who’s offered to help on the Brain Surgeon case.  She shows a special interest in Dexter from the moment they meet.

As well she would.  It turns out that she’s as important to Dexter’s life as his father, Harry, had been.  She and Harry developed “The Code.”  She knows Dexter extremely well, and helps him repair his relationship with Debra, as well as assist on the Brain Surgeon case.  I have to admit, I kept waiting for her to reveal that she was also a psychopathic serial killer, but what developed was far more surprising.  It seems that Dexter had been developing empathy.  This surprises Vogel as much as it did me.  Could Dexter be redeemable?  Rehabilitated?

The first half of this season was highly entertaining and downright mesmerizing watching these accomplished actors reveal their characters’ struggles and desires.  I wish I could say the same about the second half, marked by the resolution of the Brain Surgeon case and the reappearance of Hannah, the blonde murderess who got away.  She chooses to get Dexter’s attention by drugging both him and Debra, then leaving Dexter by the side of a road in the middle of nowhere.  Lovely girl!  And then the Brain Surgeon strikes again…they’d gotten the wrong guy!  The real Brain Surgeon killer was still out there.

While Dexter hides Hannah from a U.S. Marshal hot on her case, pushed by Elway who sees a big reward if she’s caught, he’s also developing attachment to Vogel, seeing her as his “spiritual mother.”  She understands him.  Hannah understands him.  They both love him.  You know this is not going to end well.

I won’t reveal who the Brain Surgeon really is — only that he’s been around for nearly the entire season and he has a remarkable connection to Vogel…and Dexter.  The writers did themselves proud in this particular serial killer and his ruthlessness, giving a stark contrast to Dexter and showing just how much Dexter had changed.  Which he had.  In ways that surprise even him.  But, but, but….

The final three episodes were disappointing, to say the least.  There was a sense of rushing to finish, rushing to tie up all the loose ends (when that really wasn’t necessary), and dealing blows to characters that I thought were unnecessary and unfair.  The actors all carried through with it, however, and gave it the only plausibility that was possible.  One character’s resolution in particular made me yell at my TV in frustration.  But, but, but….

Dexter remains true to himself in the end.  I’d been watching this series as a writer studying characterization and how the actors do it.  I have to at least give the writers props for giving Dexter back to himself in the end, older, wiser, more experienced at being himself, and considerably more ironic.  Michael C. Hall brings him to life and makes that final episode, in the final minutes, more believable than it had the right to be.

Am I sad the series has ended?  I found myself missing the Dexter of the first 3 or 4 seasons, the vigilante serial killer and keen observer of human behavior who spent a lot of time mystified and trying to figure things out.  He was funny and horrifying.  Debra was his rock.  They were a team.  I’m sad that that ended….

Character: “Dexter” Season 7

The Dexter season 7 DVDs finally arrived, several months earlier than previous seasons had been released.  I was eager to see how the last scenes of season 6 would either change the direction of the characters and show or not.  I’m a huge fan of this show, and I love the character of Dexter Morgan.  It’s also an ensemble show, with other complicated characters who often create problems for Dexter with their subplots.  As a writer, I learn from the actors in how they create, establish and maintain their characters.  The actors on Dexter make it look effortless.   Here’s my take on season 6.

The final scenes of season 6 set up season 7.  Debra’s psychologist has led Debra into believing that she is in love with her brother (who was adopted).  She drives to the church where Dexter is doing more forensic work, per Deb’s orders.  He’s doing quite different work, however — that of his “Dark Passenger.”  Dexter has captured Travis Marshall, the serial killer of season 6, wrapped him in plastic on the altar of the abandoned church where Travis had operated.  Debra enters the church and sees Dexter at the altar holding a knife above a figure lying on the altar.  She witnesses him killing Travis.  Her gasp catches his attention, and he sees her.  End of season 6.

Credit: themadbutcher.deviantart.com

Credit: themadbutcher.deviantart.com

Wow.  Now what?  What will Debra do?  Will she arrest Dexter?  What will Dexter do?  What will he say?  Season 7 begins at the same moment where the previous season ended, but it continues into the reactions of the brother and sister.  Debra, with her service revolver aimed at Dexter, starts firing questions at him.  He’s clearly startled, a little flustered, seemingly making it up as he goes.  He plays on her belief in him and that she would not want to believe his truth, so he makes up a plausible reason for his actions and she believes him.  But she also questions, in her mind, what she saw with her own eyes, and begins to investigate her brother.  He has pulled her into his world by her willingness to help him cover up their presence at the abandoned church.  This is not a comfortable place for Debra, who’s now a lieutenant in the Miami Metro Police.

Almost everything that happens between Debra and Dexter for the next 11 episodes originates in episode 1.  Once Debra figures out that Dexter is a serial killer, she embarks on a journey first to deny it, then to try to cure him, then to not want to know or be involved, and then finally to find herself caught between Dexter and the police.  Dexter’s journey is a different one.  He goes along with everything that Debra asks of him and tries, but his Dark Passenger will be satisfied.  He has opportunities to assess how his father, Harry, brought him up to abide by his “Code” to control Dexter’s dark impulses, and how other “serial” killers deal with their dark impulses.  The superb British actor Ray Stevenson plays a charming, elegant Ukrainian mob boss with an extremely personal and poignant secret that sends him after Dexter for revenge.  The death of a spree killer brings Dexter into contact with the young woman who, years before, had been the spree killer’s partner.  Once again Dexter thinks he’s found someone who truly understands him, and with whom he can truly be himself.

Season 7 has a high body count which doesn’t take into account the high level of emotional and psychological suspense in each episode.  Dexter and Debra struggle to make sense of their familial relationship, their jobs in light of Dexter’s extracurricular activities, and how they will move forward together and individually.  Subplots interfere at times with their struggle or give Dexter new opportunities to explore his Dark Passenger.  Dexter changes in a very, very scary way by the end, as does Debra, but it makes absolute sense considering what they’ve been through.  Other characters who embark on journeys in this season include Batista, who decides to retire; Quinn who once again allows the head between his legs to think for him; and LaGuerta, who brings back memories of Sgt. Doakes and could be the most dangerous threat to Dexter.  Harrison is now three, and we see Cody and Astor who come for a visit.  I think the writers and producers made the right decision not to have any one “villain” for this season.  It gives Dexter and Debra’s struggle the primacy it deserves.

This Showtime TV series is bloody, violent, at times unbelievably gruesome.  It blurs the line between good and evil, questioning our moral beliefs while showing another set of beliefs can create a new morality, very similar to Hannibal Lecter.  As character study, it is rich, deep, and multi-faceted — a research treasure trove for a writer……