CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS
By Nicola Furlong
Quick, think of Gone with the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
What jumps into your mind first? A snippet of the story or a character?
For me, Scarlett O’Hara, Hercule Poirot and Lisbeth Salander leap to the fore. Their personalities live well beyond words on a page, and represent the gold standard in character development. Once met, never forgotten.
So, how does an author go about developing an unforgettable persona? I’m not sure about other professional scribblers, but I craft my cast of imaginary players making endless decisions, using an assortment of techniques, and answering countless questions. Way too many to detail here, however, I thought I would share an insight into the birth of two of my lead characters.
The first critical decision a novelist must make is who is telling the tale? Once known, you can decide on how the story is told.
For example, while penning my first murder mystery Teed Off!, I wanted readers to go behind the scenes of professional women’s golf and hustle down the fairways along with my storyteller, pro golfer and coroner Riley Quinn. By choosing a First Person point of view, readers are up close and personal with Riley, and experience her grief and anger as she struggles to solve a murder, reconcile with an estranged sibling and accept her new physical limitations.
I desired something different in Heartsong, the first in my new series of cozy novels about family and forgiveness. This series features three quirky sisters—Faith, Hope and Charly Shepherd—all key to the storylines, but how would their fun and inspirational tales unfold? I needed both proximity and distance to allow me to create the series’ gentle tone, and finally decided to tell the story from a Third Person point of view, through the youngest daughter’s perspective.
But who is Riley Quinn and why is she so teed off? And what is missing in Charly Shepherd’s life that compels this single mom to question her destiny?
First step to developing a fictional character involves pondering basic tombstone stuff, like age, sex, occupation, appearance and family. Then, the writer takes a deeper, more personal dive, examining temperament, personality, values, motivations, fears and dreams.
Conflict is key to creating reader interest. That’s why Scarlett is torn between two men, why Hercule clashes with quaint English mores, and why Lisbeth’s dreadful past haunts her. I decided to place both Riley Quinn and Charly Shepherd at a crossroads in their lives. Something has happened to alter who they are and to force them to rethink who they will be.
For Riley, a physical injury drove her from the women’s golf tour. No longer a professional athlete, she’s struggling to redefine herself, and bamboozled by what she sees. Charly has been content growing flowers and raising children, until her mother’s death opens a surprising longing for a spiritual reward.
Both women are mourning. Both are probing for unfamiliar expectations. Both are perfectly posed to beguile readers. At least, that’s my plan.
While I’m considering what’s special and unforgettable about my fake folks, I want to ensure that readers really love them, even if they are as irascible (easily angered) as Nero Wolf or as single-minded as D.S. Jane Tennison. Everyone has a soft or funny or intriguing side to their personality. Rex Stout's brilliant detective is an orchid-growing gastronome and the star of Prime Suspect is constantly challenging the Old Boys' Club.
I dig characters with unexpected traits, like how my headstrong, confident Riley Quinn falters when faced with a fancy social occasion or how my prudent, earthy Charly Shepherd opens up to a divine yearning.
When characters have strong inner motivations (such as a need for love, self-esteem, confidence or security) that shape their personalities and force their actions, we immediately connect emotionally with their hopes and struggles and root for them. That’s why we applaud Scarlett’s indomitable spirit, admire Poirot’s thirst for the truth, and empathize with Lisbeth’s taste for revenge.
These captivating fundamental needs, quirks and vulnerabilities make us human and when adroitly applied in creative writing, result in imaginary individuals that stalk off the page and into your heart.
Nicola pens mystery and inspirational novels, creates interactive books for the iPad, podcasts about genre writing (The Novel Experience), and teaches electronic publishing, when she's not playing Old-Timer’s hockey, growing blossoms and bamboo or eating chocolate fudge.
Her first contemporary women's series, the Sisterhood of Shepherds, debuted with HEARTSONG in May 2014 (MantleRockPublishing). Nicola's swinging whodunit, TEED OFF! (republished in February 2014 by OakTreePress), features professional golfer and coroner Riley Quinn.
Her other novels include a psychological thriller (A HEMORRHAGING OF SOULS), six novels in The Church Choir Mysteries series and a multimedia online thriller, UNNATURALSTATES.
In addition, she has published three ebooks, YOUDUNIT WHODUNIT! HOW TO WRITE MYSTERIES, SELF-PUBLISH YOUR E-BOOK IN MINUTES! and TOP TEN GARDENING TIPS, as well as her first musical interactive children's book for the iPad, SAVING GRAPE-JELLY CHEEKS.
Nicola lives in a small seaside town on southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For more information, please visit
She also produces kickass book trailers as Quillrbiz: