There’s nothing better than a memorable protagonist in any story, but the good guy in a murder mystery or thriller is the one who saves the day by solving the crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice.
As I develop storylines for my novels, character development is secondary ONLY to the actual crime. As devastating as it is for someone to die (even on paper or e-screen), it’s the actions of the protagonist that make the story come alive. So, after deciding what should happen to begin the story’s journey, I start thinking about how that will affect the protagonist.
The same is true if the protagonist is a sequel character. You already know the character and are familiar with his or her specific traits, so there is an advantage to creating a problem that produces conflict, emotions and a reason for that character to act. So again, the actions and reactions of the protagonist are secondary ONLY to the actual event causing the character to act.
And that’s of upmost importance when developing a protagonist. The character’s reactions to scene situations are what drive the story forward. If someone gets murdered and the police detective says, “Oh well, another day, another murder,” the readers’ reaction will also be mundane and they’ll move on to another novel. We must give the reader a sense of urgency, a reason to turn the pages and to care about what’s taking place. That reader investment occurs only when the protagonist cares to the point of obsession.
As writers, we should perceive a protagonist as a complex psychological being driven by any combination of past experiences, emotional baggage, current likes/dislikes/frustrations and future expectations. We are driven by our past experiences and future possibilities, and so are our characters—none more so than our main character, the one driving the storyline.
When we tap into the raw emotions of our protagonists—the hurts, the joys, the anger and disappointment, driving forces—that’s when we begin to reveal the real story. The trigger may be a murder, a series of them or some other great evil about to be unleashed, but the real story is how the protagonist arrives at a solution to the presented problem. Without tapping into the history of the main characters, there can be no story in the present. There should be intangible motivations directing the characters to do what they do to restore equilibrium into the world as it’s presented.
Primarily, those motivations come from a mix of external and internal changes that are either happening or will happen as the story progresses. Externally, the character must achieve something and be better off at the end of the story than at the beginning. It may be a newfound romance or even a change in job, but there must be some evolution to propel our readers through those written words to the last page.
Even more importantly, we must draw in the readers’ emotions and cause them to become invested and involved in the character’s world. That happens when the protagonist undergoes an internal change: a shift of viewpoint, a realization of a source of fear or achieves some significant resolution. But that change, that paradigm shift, should not happen easily. It should affect the character to his or her very core and should cause initial resistance to change. That internal struggle gives depth to the story, and the eventual acceptance of the change makes the believable lie that fiction is . . . well, believable.
There are no rules requiring that those changes must be for the better. Tragedy happens all the time in the real world and it’s especially dramatic when it happens in a well-written novel. The protagonist MUST undergo an internal and external change for the reasons stated above, but those changes may well end in tragedy. In one of my past novels, the protagonist is dealing with a life-long struggle of achievement and acceptance, only to lose a prized possession in the end. This character is forever changed because of the loss, but it was necessary so that his life could progress in a certain way. So, even in adversity, there is progression in character development.
When I develop a storyline for a murder mystery or a thriller, the murder or the evil lurking beyond reach becomes the supporting pillar for the real story of the main character’s reactions to the events and what those actions eventually cost the character.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!