During my latest critique session, I got one consistent note from the group: We love your characters.
They’re seeing the first draft of my current project, and I like to pants my way through the first act, so the plot is still forming in my brain. The group provided some good notes about the direction my story is taking that I will take into consideration moving forward.
But as I draft this crime thriller, I wanted to focus primarily on creating characters that make my readers want to keep reading. So, to get that feedback from my critique partners means I’m on the right track.
With crime thrillers, plot can be king. Readers want the twists and reveals, the secrets and the lies, the forbidden affairs and comeuppance for the villains. Include the right balance, and you can satisfy genre readers.
And that’s how I went about crafting my first four novels. I came up with the basic plot, then found characters (and sometimes settings) to satisfy those story elements. This wasn’t intentional, but how my brain naturally told stories.
As a former daily journalist, I’d learned to report on what people did, not who they were. Even for features, the narratives were based more on what extraordinary things (heroic or villainous) people did, and depicting those events in the shortest, most streamlined way possible.
But as I learned more about my craft and my own natural instincts, I discovered two things.
First, I know I can create plots that satisfy crime fiction readers. I’ve done it four times, and readers and critics have all told me it’s one of my greatest strengths.
Second, while readers get excited and turn pages for plot, they fall in love with characters. And when they’ve done that, they review, recommend, and commit to your next novel (whether it’s a series or not).
What’s the takeaway from these two discoveries?
If I want to create stories that resonate and provide my readers with the greatest satisfaction, I must ensure that I create characters, not caricatures. The people inhabiting my novels must be fully formed, realistic, and relatable.
I also have the confidence to focus primarily on this part of the craft. History and feedback have proven to me that once I have my characters where they need to be, I can create a satisfying plot for them.
This work has not been easy, and I’m certainly not writing at the same pace as my previous novels. But this is my first time focusing on characters first, and I’m still building that muscle, so I’m giving myself some grace.
And I know when I get as good at characters as I am at plot, my writing — and my odds at commercial success — will begin to improve exponentially.