Creating a Character with Criminal Profiling
One of the biggest challenges I faced in my development as a writer was creating compelling characters suited the stories I wanted to tell.
As an author of speculative fiction, I tend to start with a story concept rather than a person: e.g., “What if psychic mediums could summon murder victims to testify against their killers in court?” Such an idea suggests all kinds of plot possibilities to me, but how do I populate the story believably?
Unfortunately, I am not one of those lucky writers whose characters spring fully-formed from their brains like Athena from the head of Zeus. Early in my career, I tried basing some characters on people I knew in real life, but the friends and neighbors I’d plug into the story didn’t always match the narrative’s needs. Eventually, I hit upon the technique of working backward from the plot points I had in mind to determine what sort of character would work best in each role, in much the same way that criminal profilers look at the available evidence to deduce what kind of person the perpetrator might be.
I start by asking myself, “For whom would this problem create the greatest challenge?”
Fiction thrives on conflict, and the harder it is for the protagonist to resolve the conflict, the more exciting the story. Therefore, to maximize the conflict, I strive to invent a character with a particular weakness, tragic flaw, or other vulnerability that makes the obstacles of my story even more daunting. I always think of the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones peers down into the tomb and sees the floor writhing with serpents. “Snakes!” he moans. “Why did it have to be snakes?” The answer: Because snakes are what you fear most, Indy! And it’s going to be a lot more fun to see you drop down in the middle of them.
When I originated the story that became my first novel, Through Violet Eyes, all I had was the concept stated in the first paragraph of this essay.
I imagined what the world might be like if communication with the dead were a scientifically-proven, widely-accepted reality. Naturally, I figured my heroine would be one of the Violets, the violet-eyed mediums born with the genetic ability to summon the deceased to inhabit their bodies. But what would she be like? Well, it would really suck to be a medium if you had a pathological, paralyzing fear of dying, death, and the dead.
Thus, my protoganist, Natalie Lindstrom, has an almost obsessive-compulsive aversion to life-threatening risk of any sort. She is a health nut who doesn’t like to ride in motor vehicles for fear of traffic accidents and who even has a phobia of elevators because she’s afraid an earthquake might snap the cable and send her plunging to her doom. Having experienced firsthand the Other Side (which in the book’s reality is rather bleak), she wants to put off the inevitable as long as possible. And yet, because she has this rare ability, society forces her to channel homicide victims, deceased individuals who have perished in the most horrible ways imaginable. Quite a dilemma, no?From this line of reasoning, I found I could surmise all kinds of things about Natalie’s personality.
What sort of entertainment might she enjoy in her spare time, for instance? Probably not slasher films and murder mysteries. I decided she’d rather watch classic musicals and screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, a realm of innocent romance where the worst thing that can happen to someone is to be late to a dinner party.
But what about my hero, Natalie’s love interest in the story? What kind of man would have the hardest time getting along with her?
Why, one who has an almost pathological fear of Violets, of course! While most ordinary people in this reality find the Violets somewhat creepy, the mediums are anathema to Dan Atwater, my F.B.I. profiler. He once shot an innocent man in the line of duty, and he dreads the possibility that a Violet may one day force him to confront his unjustly slain victim. Since Violets can summon deceased people from your past by making physical contact with you, Dan is afraid even to touch a Violet. Nevertheless, he is assigned to work with and protect Natalie and finds himself attracted to this beautiful if intimidating young woman. What happens when he really, really wants to touch her?
Once you begin compiling this kind of profile of a character, you may find that one trait logically implies another, dropping into place as smoothly as a row of falling dominoes. And because your character was created specifically for your story—indeed, was created by your story—she will be utterly unique, unlike any other person real or imagined. That’s when both your tale and its inhabitants take on a life of their own.
So the next time you need to solve the mystery of your characters’ psychology, put on your deerstalker cap and try a little deduction. It’s elementary, my dear Watson!
Thank you so much, Stephen, for sharing your writing advice on Books That Hook!
Check out Stephen Woodworth’s newest book, Fraulein Frankenstein!
Her fate has become lost in legends. Some say her creator destroyed her; others believe fearful villagers burned her alive. Now, the mate that Victor Frankenstein created for his monster reveals her true story, from her awakening on the slab in the scientist’s laboratory, through her tortured initiation into human society, to her desperate quest for a love of her own…even if she has to manufacture the lover she wants.
Other books by Stephen Woodworth