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Rick Treon says focus on your characters

Rick Treon is an award-winning crime fiction author. Read more about Rick here, see his books here, and read his last post here.

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.

Finally.

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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).

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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.

Rick Treon

Rick Treon writes about life and death in the Lone Star State. His novel Divided States won the 2022 PenCraft Award for Literary Excellence in Terrorism Thrillers, and was nominated for Silver Falchion and Best Thriller Book awards. His debut suspense novel Deep Background won the 2019 PenCraft Award, and Let the Guilty Pay was nominated for a PenCraft and Silver Falchion in suspense. To learn more, visit www.ricktreon.com, or follow him on TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. J A Hoda
    J A Hoda

    Growing as an author is where the fun is. Having a critique group is most important for a feedback loop to cement the positive changes. Write on.

  2. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    For me, it’s the characters that make (or break) a book. Unless it’s a thriller, in which case you expect it to be plot-driven. But my preference is for mystery/suspense, where there is an expectation of character development. And as you’ve found, if readers love your characters, they love your book.

  3. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Hi Ricky, For me, I need to know my characters inside and out. I need to know their fears and motivations, their past, present and future. Since I know who they are and what the story is, I have no trouble pulling out the plot. -no, I’m not a plotter. At that moment, I rely on discovery. And let my characters speak to me. I say, have fun with your new friends!

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    saralynrichard

    I agree wholeheartedly that characters are the driving force behind great books. Don’t rush the process, either. Let the characters evolve the way they are meant to. They will write the plot for you!

  5. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    If my characters aren’t talking to me, they’re not real. I need them to be real for them to work.

  6. Avatar
    Sharon Michalove

    I start with characters, then find the plot from what motivates the characters. In fact, my characters can be pretty bossy if they don’t like what I have them doing.

  7. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    Since you’re already a great writer, I can’t wait to read one of your character-driven thrillers!

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    I get out of the way and let my characters drive the plot. Thanks for your analysis, Rick.

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    Laurie Buchanan

    Rick — Yes, indeed! Readers fall in love with characters, not plots.

  10. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Ditto on what Laurie Buchanan said. As for thriller or suspense writers, I just read one of Jo Nesbo’s books (THE SNOWMAN) that were given out at the Boucher Conference this past fall. Talk about a deep dive into characters! What the characters did and thought about their own history, personalities, flaws, growth needs, pain, etc. created one of the fastest-paced thriller/suspense books I’d read in a while. “A character in trouble” is what we all write. I write mysteries that are traditional and it’s all about characters there, too. Readers follow characters, such as Grandpa Gil in my series.

  11. Margaret Mizushima
    Margaret Mizushima

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Rick! Characters can sell books to publishers even if the plot isn’t great. If you can do a good job with both, that’s an huge bonus! Write On!

  12. John DeDakis
    John DeDakis

    Good piece, Rick. It’s always good to come across journalists who become novelists. I’m in wholehearted agreement with all the previous comments about character being the key to good storytelling. During a class I was teaching on character development, one of my students had a light-bulb moment: “I just figured out my problem,” she said. “I’ve been writing political thrillers, but get bored with them after writing 50 pages. I now realize I’ve been trying to impose plot onto the characters rather than having the plots emerge from them.”

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