The Crime Readers' Association

Crime Writing Tips: The Importance of Character

12th September 2013 by in

Leigh Russell


Crime fiction is plot driven. Yet however clever and intriguing the storyline, no novel succeeds without strong characters. They need to be credible so readers can believe in them. It is also important to decide which characters your readers should be rooting for. If readers don’t care what happens to any of the characters in a book, they will rapidly lose interest.

There are a number of steps you can take to ensure your characters come to life for the reader. First of all characters need to be recognisable and consistent, yet not so predictable that they become dull and two dimensional. A little planning will enable you to include some plausible surprises to keep your readers engaged.

It is advisable to keep notes, especially if you are planning to write a series using the same characters. Remember, when it comes to crime fiction, readers – and publishers- love series. Notes can be stored physically or electronically, but make sure they are easy to access. You do not want to waste time searching for notes on a particular character while you are in full creative flow. Quick reference to your notes will ensure you avoid both contradiction and reiteration. However your notes are stored, make sure you keep a back up.

Many authors write detailed character sketches before starting their narrative, deciding on characters’ personal history and tastes in advance. Much of this information may not appear explicitly in the book, but it informs the writing nevertheless. Familiarising yourself with your characters will help you to write about them with confidence, and they will seem three dimensional and more credible result. Think about the point of view you select. First person takes the reader right into the situation, alongside your narrator. Third person allows the writer to present aspects of the narrative from different angles. This enables you to make use of dramatic irony, where the reader is aware of something unknown to a character – the ‘He’s behind you!’ technique exploited in pantomime.

Both points of view can be effective, so think carefully about the best way to communicate your story to your readers. Most readers like to be given a physical description of a main character, although some prefer to create that image for themselves. You need to decide how much you are going to tell your reader about your protagonist’s appearance, and how best to convey this information. Try to avoid cliches, although at one time or another most authors (myself included) resort to a character examining himself or herself in a mirror to allow for a brief physical description.

There are other ways to do this, by having one character observe another character’s appearance, for example. This should fit naturally into the narrative, such as a detective studying a murder victim. “… the dead woman had been slender and short. Her dark grey hair was streaked with chestnut brown that glimmered in the bright lights. Pulled back off her face, it gave her a severe appearance… She had small neat features, well-proportioned, and must have been quite attractive when she was younger. In death her face looked ghastly, grey and somehow shrunken, as though her cheeks had collapsed inwards…” The chances of even being published are very slim, but there is always a possibility you may be writing a future bestseller.

Either way, creating convincing and engaging characters is a vital part of writing a book.


Leigh Russell writes the popular Geraldine Steel crime series. Her debut, Cut Short, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award in 2010 and all her titles regularly appear in bestseller lists on amazon, WH Smith’s, Waterstones, iTunes and kindle, selling over 100,000 books to date. She teaches Creative Writing for The Society of Authors and The Writers Lab.

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