Writing the Whole Person by Susan Oleksiw

Writers agonize over developing a character that will be considered well rounded and fully realized. We take workshops, read how-to books by some of our favorite crime writers, and write out short or lengthy bios of our protagonists, including a backstory that will elicit sympathy and the reader’s allegiance. I’ve done all of these things, but if this is all I’ve done, the character will fall flat in my view. Only recently have I figured out why this is so.

In writing a series with a recurring protagonist and back-up characters, I had the luxury of a story arc that covered several books, giving me as well as the reader several experiences in which to get to know my lead. Since these were traditional mysteries, I had ample opportunity to explore how she or he lived outside of a particular murder investigation. She had a job and other responsibilities, or a family or close friend or lover. The reader followed her into various corners of her life that promised a little bit of personal history as well as clues to the murder and its perpetrator. Without even thinking about it, I was giving the reader the one crucial element that was missing from the courses I took and the books I read.

This has become more and more clear to me since I’ve started writing a stand-alone mystery. In certain ways, this is a very different writing challenge from the series mystery, and I saw at once as I read more in that genre what was missing. In a traditional mystery the reader gets to know the protagonist in her chosen setting among friends and neighbors, and this device requires the heroine to reveal more of her ordinary self. How does she get along with her friends? What makes her laugh? How does she feel about various aspects of life deep down? In most stand-alones, we meet the main characters one or two pages away from a crisis, and never get to know them in moments of lightheartedness, the way we are when we’re not facing a threat to our lives or those we love.

In his book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder points out that a character can get away with any vile behavior if at the outset he does something the audience will cheer–he saves a cat or a dog or a child. You get the idea. And the idea works. But I’m talking about something more.

In any novel I want to discover the whole person, who she is when she’s happy as well as when she’s frightened and confused and feeing overwhelmed. The challenge is balancing all facets of a single personality in a story of suspense and murder, but in the end I want to come away with a feeling of having lived with a real person, enjoyed her sense of humor, felt the darkness she struggled against, understood her choices, and sympathized with her frailties.

Perhaps I’m especially sensitive to this absence in most suspense characters because I have a wry sense of humor that tends to show up all the time, whatever the circumstances. I admire men and women who can step back from danger and ease the fear and pain with a joke or flash of kindness, some sense of keeping a larger perspective. I seek the same level of character development in the stories I read and write, and I admire any writer who gets it on the page for me to enjoy.


12 thoughts on “Writing the Whole Person by Susan Oleksiw

  1. I agree with everything you say, Susan, and the other comments here, too. In some ways, writing a stand-alone is easier I think in that you can have the whole character arc in one book. But, as you say, you want to get know the whole person and sometimes that’s hard to do when the plot is barreling along.


    1. The challenging part for me is finding a way to deliver the entire arc in one story. On the other hand, my plots don’t usually go barreling along without a LOT of rewriting. Thanks for adding that point, Paul.


  2. Can you hear my resounding applause, Susan? Because I am clapping like crazy. A great insight into one of the joys and perils of writing, giving life to characters instead of just facets. It’s so often the small things that make a difference. Although, having a character save a cat, dog, or baby is not such a small thing. Among other things, it gives the reader a chance to reflect and believe that they, in that given situation, would do the same act of humanity. It’s not only uplifting but inspiring. I remember years ago, there was a film, She-Devil, (based on the book, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil) starring Rosanne Barr as the wounded wife. We were with her all the way until she deliberately set her home on fire leaving a helpless gerbil spinning on his wheel to die if the flames. From that moment on, she was not at all a sympathetic character. In fact, quite the opposite. I don’t remember many details of the film from 1989, but I still remember the scene with that poor animal trapped in his cage vividly.


    1. Thank you, Heather. When I started writing this particular post I wasn’t sure it would mean anything to anyone else, but I was wrong. Clearly it resonates with a lot of writers and readers. I didn’t see that particular movie, but I do recall a few others (and books) in which I abandoned all interest in the main character after an especially offensive act of pique. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Two writers who come to mind for doing a great job with in-depth characters in a stand-alone: Donnell Ann Bell and Hank Phillippi Ryan.

    Once in a while, not often, I run across an author who gets carried away with social interactions and domestic details and drops the ball on the plot. I read a book last fall in which there was a whole chapter devoted to the main character’s wife writing and gardening, and it had no connection with anything. It could have been lifted out whole and not unraveled a single thread of the story. The challenge is in creating a whole person while moving the story at the same time.

    Good post!


    1. Yes, Amber, I agree. The whole point of a fully developed character is to help us see and understand the story line better. Every scene, every line of dialogue or description should move the plot forward. Thanks for the two suggestions.


  4. Susan,

    I agree as well. A well-rounded character/protagonist is always intriguing. When readers connect with a character, no matter how flawed, they read the book through. I know that’s true of me. And I too like a bit of humor in novels, especially tense, suspenseful mysteries.


  5. I agree. I will read a book with a flawed storyline if I love the character, but if the character falls flat, I can’t read even a good storyline. For me it’s all about the character(s). Good post!


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