By H. P. Oliver

A well-crafted novel is a lot like a perfectly prepared entree' in which the recipe ingredients are harmoniously blended into a single palate pleasing flavor. In the instance of an historical mystery, for example, the primary recipe ingredients are plot, locale, period, and the cast of characters.

While no one of these ingredients is of greater importance to the final story than the others, the casting of a novel is sometimes the story element requiring the most diligence. Simply put, it's no small task to create from scratch a person with whom readers can relate. Or, as Ernest Hemmingway put it, "When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature."

Let's go back to the bit about readers relating to the people in your story. That relationship may be positive or negative, but it must never be indifferent. In other words, I want readers to either love or hate the people I create.

In simple terms a positive relationship would be one in which readers see a character as a good person, someone they might like to know. This is the sort of relationship most writers want to establish for a protagonist. A negative relationship would be the opposite-a person readers see as evil, disgusting, or at least annoying. This is usually the way we want our readers to feel about the antagonists in our stories.

If, however, readers feel indifferent about a main character, it means they don't really give a damn about the person one way or the other. This might be okay for minor characters, but readers who have no feelings about my protagonists and antagonists probably aren't getting much out of my story.

The important point here is that the writer determines how readers feel about the people in our stories. If we want readers to make an emotional investment in our characters, we have to give them something on which to base such an investment.


A physical description--such qualities as build, facial characteristics and manner of dress--help readers form a mental picture of the person we're creating. This is one of those places where connotations become extremely important. Is the person slender or skinny? Is the woman a dame or a lady? Is the guy dapper or rumpled?

A technique I've found helpful in writing historical mysteries is comparing the character's appearance to a well known person of the era. In his first novella (Death By Dirigible), for example, Hollywood private eye Johnny Spicer jokingly compares his looks to those of actor William Powell. In the short story Night Train to Frisco a female cast member wears her long blonde hair in the peek-a-boo style made popular by actress Veronica Lake.

Providing readers with a mental picture of a person in our stories becomes a little easier when we base that character on a well known celebrity of the era. A secondary character in Revolver is a young actor named Humphrey Bogart. Even though it's unlikely that anyone who reads Revolver doesn't already know what Bogart looked like, Johnny Spicer still comments on his appearance, pointing out physical characteristics that make the character an unlikely leading man, and thus reinforcing the reader's mental picture of the character.


Dialogue provides another good opportunity to flesh-out a character. Does the person speak formally or casually? Does he or she have an accent or speech impediment? What is the tone of the person's voice?

In SILENTS! the studio boss, L. A. Bromfeld, is partially defined by his high-pitched voice and strong east European accent. Creating a believable dialect can be tricky, but if you aren't already familiar with a particular dialect, there's help available on-line, in books, and on audio CDs intended for actors who are preparing for a role with an accent.

My character Johnny Spicer is challenging in this area because he adapts his manner of speaking to the situation and the character he's addressing. While this is a very useful trait for someone in the business of interviewing witnesses and suspects, the changes in his speech patterns could be confusing to readers, so I'm careful to be consistent in his inconsistencies.


You could also use the word demeanor to describe this aspect of character development. It has to do with a person's behavioral characteristics. For example, is the person normally relaxed and casual or are they high-strung and intense?

In Revolver, Johnny Spicer describes the film director Dmitriy Volodin as "one of those nervous types who always seem to be in motion even when they aren't." This image is reinforced by Spicer's description of Volodin's behavior during their conversation: "He settled back into the chair behind his desk again and began tapping an engraved, silver letter opener on the blotter." By the time this scene ends readers have a very clear picture of Volodin's temperament.

Creating a clear picture of a character's normal temperament is also useful because it makes an intentional change in behavior more apparent. For example, you can cast doubt on the person's credibility if their normally casual temperament suddenly becomes intense or agitated. When that happens readers have good reason to suspect something's afoot.


In addition to those already mentioned, there a other characteristics we can use to define a person in our story. I won't attempt to mention all of them, but one that comes to mind is the person's personal environment. In Revolver Johnny Spicer interviews a woman in her home and describes the extreme symmetry of her decor. From this he concludes she is the sort who goes around straightening pictures on the wall even when they don't need straightening--an important insight into the woman's personality.

Another example of this technique is found in The Truth Be Told when our protagonist describes the female lead's living room: "Standing back to admire Wendy's decorating handiwork, I realized that, in spite of the stark moderne accessories, the room had a warm, homey feeling about it. That fit. This was Wendy's sanctuary-her retreat from the bullshit of our Industry." More than providing background color, the description of Wendy's surroundings tells us something important about her as a person.

Another of the characteristics I find useful in fleshing out a character are a person's habits. In the big band-era thriller And The Angels Sing, we get some strong clues as to the primary villain's personality through an observation made by one of his henchmen: "The boss stuck one hand in the side pocket of his black and white houndstooth sport coat and ran the palm of his other hand slowly over his slick black hair. Chick knew when the boss did that he was tryin' to think somethin' out. It was a regular thing he did."

There are, of course, many other character qualities and techniques we can use to help readers get to know the people in our novels, but by now, you have the idea. The important things to me are consistency and believability. Unless I'm trying to make a plot point, a character who behaves inconsistently blurs the mental image readers have of that person.

As for believability, we can refer back to the Hemingway quote I used earlier. People who become caricatures or stereotypes are not believable. For readers to enjoy our stories, our characters must become real to them, perhaps even reminiscent of people they know personally. To make a story plausible, our casts of characters must be believable people who consistently behave believably. I try to keep that point foremost in my mind every time I set out to cast a new novel.

In closing, the most important point I can make on this subject is that it is crucial for me to know the people in my stories intimately and to have definite feelings about them. If I don't love or hate them, readers won't either.