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The Mystery of Character
by Robert Wilson
Author of The Hidden Assassins
second most asked question of any writer after: Where do
you get your ideas from? is: How do you think up your
characters? The answer to the first question is that they
just pop out of my diseased brain. The answer to the
second is more complicated, but linked to the first.
I am a great observer of people, whether sitting in bars
and cafés, or walking in the street, I am always looking
at men, women and children and subconsciously making
notes. I study not just what theyre wearing, but
also what theyre trying to achieve. Are they being
flashy or flirtatious, sober or sensible, casual or
classy? I watch how they comport themselves. Are they
hiding a pot belly, a bald head, a weak chin? How do
others react to them? Do they turn heads? Are they an
affront to other people? If someone particularly
fascinates me I imagine the life theyve lived or,
more accurately, I give them a life to suit their look.
When it comes to writing I draw on these subconscious
notes. They are rarely written down. The test is that if
I have remembered them then they must have some
importance. Quite often walk-on characters have assumed
far greater roles in the story than I initially
envisioned. A woman I may have seen in a cake shop and
had conceived of as nouveau riche, materialistic,
conservative, firmly embedded in her social class and
concerned about her position in it, can be transformed by
fiction. She may suddenly refuse to behave in the way in
which I imagined. Once Ive put her in a scene, say,
the grieving widow being interviewed by the detective
investigating her husbands murder, she may start to
fight her way out of my fictional strait jacket. This is
the wonder of being a writer; when characters assume life
and take on an even greater reality.
Characters, like people, do not appear out of nowhere.
First they have to belong somewhere. My first stop on the
way to developing a character is to have the setting in
mind. In my case I had decided that Seville in Spain
would make a great setting for a crime novel. But why?
Seville has one of the lowest murder rates in Spain, is
recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the
world, with people who are amongst the most vivacious in
Europe. And it was precisely for these reasons that I
decided it would be the perfect setting for mayhem and
One of the fundamental themes of crime fiction is:
appearance and reality. What better place to set a crime
novel than in a place which appears to be beautiful and
full of attractive people, but which, like all cities,
has a dark underbelly of crime, vice, drugs and racial
Even at this early stage there is a recognizable process.
Characters are coming into being because Im asking
myself a series of questions. Their development, and that
of the plot, will come from my answers to those
questions. So because of the nature of my setting I
decided that my detective hero was going to appear to be
one sort of person, but in reality be someone completely
In The Blind Man of Seville when we first come across the
Spanish detective, Chief Inspector Javier Falcón he is
Mr. Straight. He is perfectly groomed in a suit which he
wears buttoned up, a white shirt and tie and lace-up
shoes. He is contained, some might say restrained. He is
not liked by his colleagues, who find him cold and
uncommunicative. They have given him the nickname of The
Lizard. I began by creating a hero who was not instantly
likeable. But what this gave me was the opportunity, in
the course of the book, to change him.
Policemen are naturally conservative people, engaged in a
profession with a hierarchy. In order to be a homicide
detective you have to be a senior policeman and therefore
middle-aged -- and middle-aged men do not change. They
might tell a new joke (if youre lucky) or give up
smoking or try out all the facial hair options, but they
will not, fundamentally, change. So how could I change
Javier Falcón? After some thought I realized that only a
major psychological trauma was going to be able to wreak
havoc (and therefore change) in the mind of such a
Our lives are built on the foundations of belonging. We
have family who give us a sense of our place in the
world. Rock those foundations and our world falls apart.
This was what I did to Javier Falcón. In investigating a
brutal murder in Seville he finds himself digging around
in his own history. In doing so he uncovers some terrible
truths about his own father and the way in which his
beloved mother, who had died when he was only five years
old, had met her end. They are shattering revelations.
They break him as a human being and leave him hanging on
to his new, terrible world by the thinnest of shreds.
This is another important part of character development
-- the back story. Where does your character come from?
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? What is his
relationship to his parents, siblings, friends,
colleagues and lovers? Where did he go to school? Did he
go to university? What was the political climate like?
Why did he choose his current profession?
The answers to these questions can help you determine a
characters development, but what are the techniques
that help you show these answers to your reader? Unless
back story and the books plot are interwoven the
reader does not want to know it. The reader is only
interested in whats happening now and what is going
Theres a limit to how much you can show through
action and reaction -- think how little you learn about
people in everyday life from what they do and say, and I
dont just mean politicians. People have a habit of
being deceptive, to protect themselves from intrusion.
They are not usually open, especially if they have
something terrible to hide.
Opening up characters is a tricky process but I have
found one of the more fascinating ways is to put them
into a scene with difficult people and in trying
circumstances so that they give themselves away. Conflict
leads to drama, which leads to revelations.
Another way of demonstrating a character is showing him
from a different point of view: A sister may see her
brother as lovable. A brother sees him as dependable. A
colleague values the same man because of his insight. A
lover despises him for some reason. And of course, all
these ancillary characters have their own personalities
and our understanding of them gives us a different
perception of the hero.
But how do we get into the deeply hidden stuff? I chose
to put Javier Falcón on the psychologists couch to
reveal to him, and us, the bits that our hero
doesnt know himself.
The irony of all this is that in finally understanding
Javier, we see him broken and we reach another unknowable
area: What does he have inside him so that he can rebuild
himself? I had the advantage of rehabilitating my hero in
a series of books. In The Vanished Hands he mends himself
through communication with others. The gross intrusion of
reality into his own life has given him a better
understanding of the intrusiveness of investigative
police work into other peoples lives. It is for
this reason that the plot and all the characters
stories come out almost entirely in dialogue. In the
latest novel, The Hidden Assassins, Javier is in full
command of his new talents and has become more intuitive,
instinctive and human.
Perhaps, though, the ultimate secret of character
development, as with the eternal fascination of lovers,
is that there must always be something unfathomable, an
element of mystery.
Copyright © 2006 Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson is the author of eight novels, including The
Hidden Assassins (Published by Harcourt; November
2006;$25.00US; 0-15-101239-3) as well as A Small
Death in Lisbon, which won the Gold Dagger Award as
Best Crime Novel of the Year from Britain's Crime
Writers' Association. He lives in Portugal and Oxford,
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