Peg Cochran: The Importance of Character

During the month of May, several authors have been invited to help kick off my mystery-trivia book tour by writing about setting, plot, or character. Today my guest is mystery writer, Peg Cochran. Read what Peg has to say about the importance of character in a novel. Welcome, Peg.

The Importance of Character
By Peg Cochran           
I’m thrilled to be guest blogging today!  Thanks so much for having me.  I had a choice of plot or character as a topic…it’s kind of the writer’s version of the “chicken or the egg.”  Which comes first?
            For me, it’s character with a smidge of plot thrown in.  The old “what if?” question that writers tease themselves with is the plot part.  Then you have to figure what if this happens to…and that’s where character comes in.
            When I wrote Confession Is Murder I started with the somewhat juvenile idea that it would be really funny to have a character walk into a church and say “Holy shit!”  Which is, of course, the first line in the book.  But who would say that?  Obviously Lucille Mazzarella (“that’s like mozzarella but with an ‘a’.”)  Who was Lucille?  She came to me completely formed.  I knew Lucille from the get go.  I knew what she would say, how she would speak, what she would do.  She was middle-aged, like me, struggling to lose a few pounds (I plead the Fifth on that one), devoted to her family and still madly in love with her husband after many years of marriage.
            But not all characters arrive fully formed on the page.  Some I have to dig for, and some never really make that leap to reality that Lucille did.  I know a lot of writers favor the “character sheet” which you fill in with date of birth, hair and eye color, favorite flavor of ice cream etc.  I’ve done that with mixed results.  You might end up with a 28 year old female who likes root beer floats, parts her hair on the left and had an older brother who liked to tease her.  It’s a start, for sure, but it’s not the whole story.
            My favorite method of getting to know a character is free writing.  Just put your fingers on the keys, get into your character’s head, and have them “talk” to you.  Ask them questions and then have them answer in their own “voice.”  You’d be amazed at what you uncover!  The key is to keep writing, don’t sweat it, just listen to your character and see what comes out your fingers as you keep them moving on the keys.  People are complex, they don’t often make sense—this will lead to a more realistic character than if you sat down with a form and spent hours carefully filling in the blanks. 
            All great book are about characters.  Can you remember the plot to Gone with the Wind (other than that the South lost and Rhett Butler—another great character—says damn in the end?)  No, you remember Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett.  I can remember the opening line “Scarlett O’Hara was not really beautiful but men seldom realized that when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”  Do you remember Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye?  Do you remember what happens?  What would To Kill a Mocking Bird be without Scout?  Or the 18 or 19 Evanovich books without Stephanie Plum and Grandma Mazur?   A Christmas Carol without Scrooge?
            Okay, I rest my case!  In my humble opinion, if you give your readers a colorful, memorable character, they will forgive you any and all plot holes!  And your book will stay in their mind a lot, lot longer.

Peg Cochran is the author of Confession Is Murder, first in the Patron Saint Mystery Series (available for Kindle and soon for all ebook platforms), Allergic to Death, first in the Gourmet De-Lite series coming in August from Berkley Prime Crime and Murder Unmentionable, first in the Sweet Nothings series, debuting in September under the pen name Meg London.

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