Elizabeth George has always been one of my favorite mystery writers. First of all her characters are all so well drawn that you would immediately recognize any of them if you bumped into them at a party, first by their appearance or, failing that, by their manner of speaking. I’m positive I could pick Barbara Havers or Thomas Lynley out of a crowd in a matter of seconds. Secondly, it wasn’t until I read her book, Write Away, which I learned she wasn’t even English (where her books are set); she is actually from California! I swear her descriptions, dialect, and other indicators of setting are so realistic that it was next to impossible to have known this. What are this prolific author’s secrets you might ask?
Elizabeth George is certainly not the first writer to wax eloquent about the virtues of character interviews (or character prompts as she calls them). I first learned about this type of character development at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference two years ago. Though the idea of immersing myself in a character by writing down everything I know about them sounded intriguing, it also sounded like an awful lot of work so I put it on the back burner and continued to slog along, hoping that my stories would eventually just “fall into place”. I eventually realized that this was not likely to happen so, when George devoted a full chapter to character analysis including an example of how she used character prompts and what she calls “free-writing analysis to create one of her strong characters, I decided that it was time to apply the technique to some of my own characters. Much to my surprise I discovered that, not only does it work, it’s actually fun to do! It’s like being introduced to someone you’ve never met before and trying to learn everything you can about them through asking both general and specific questions. Specific questions can be about things like their physical qualities (height, weight, or hair color) or their background (where they went to school, who is in their family, or what jobs they’ve held). More general questions can focus on their strengths and weaknesses, their core emotional need, or a significant event that molded them into what they are today. Once inside your characters’ minds, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to see what they have to offer and where they’ll fit into your story line. After you’ve completed these sketches, George suggests that you highlight what you feel are the most important parts of them and keep your sheets by your keyboard to refer back to as you’re constructing your story.
When her preliminary research is complete, her second strategy is to visit the area she’s writing about (in her case England). Once there, she immerses herself in the local color, wandering around (sometimes with a destination, sometimes without) taking photographs that she can use later to draw her descriptions of various buildings, neighborhoods, and towns from. She finds that this also adds to the novel’s atmosphere. George’s perspective is that, if the setting is real to her, it becomes much easier to make it believable to the reader, a view I wholeheartedly agree.
Of course there’s much more to both of these processes than I can fit in a blog post! If you want to learn more, read the book. You won’t regret it!