Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to develop a series character

When I started writing The Surest Poison, I set up my protagonist, Sid Chance, as a former Metro Nashville cop who got shot in the line of duty and, after recovering, took a job as police chief in a small town south of Nashville. I had him divorced by a wife who couldn’t take the stress of wondering if her husband would survive the next shift.

After I was a few chapters into the manuscript, one of my critique group members made a remark that struck a nerve. She said she was tired of reading about all the PIs who were sama-samo wounded ex-cops pining over a lost love.

Back to the drawing board. I looked at the plot, which involved a toxic chemical spill behind a plant in a rural area. What kind of background would make a guy really concerned about such a situation? I also needed him to be trained in law enforcement so he would qualify for the police chief job. In doing research for Designed to Kill, my second Greg McKenzie mystery, I had interviewed a ranger at the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Perdido Key, FL and knew they were graduates of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center near Brunswick, GA.

I had my answer. Sid Chance became a veteran National Park Service ranger who was wounded in the line of duty after 18 years on the job. He became a rugged outdoorsman who had earlier trained in living off the land as an Army Special Forces soldier. I did away with the wife and left him a lifelong bachelor.

As the story developed, a key part of the plot involved his experiences as chief of police in the fictional town of Lewisville, TN. I covered that facet of his background extensively. His role as a Green Beret in Vietnam merited a few mentions, with one relevant incident recounted. Sid’s ranger job provided only a couple of peripheral details, mainly as motivation for his intense interest in the pollution case.

In the next book I will develop his background as a National Park ranger as part of the plot. All I know at this point is that he was shot while working on an inter-agency drug operation. Since he had a reputation as something of a maverick, some of the higher ups took advantage of the opportunity to rule him unfit for duty because of the injury. That was when he applied for the police chief job. Before I get to that, I need to make a journey to Gatlinburg and interview a ranger at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park headquarters.

That’s how I develop characters in a series. Each additional book provides opportunities to explore new facets of a character’s life, bring out experiences that helped shape how he or she approaches the world around them. It helps readers make those comments:

“I can’t wait for the next one to come out.”


Marvin D Wilson said...

I like your style and approach in developing a series character - I do it much the same. :)

The Old Silly


Enjoyed the read very much.


Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Marvin. Glad it works for you, too. I don't do a complete dossier on a character before I start, but I usually know more than I put in the manuscript. I learn more about him or her as the story develops.

Thanks for the comment, Yvonne. Glad you stopped by. Come back again.

Morgan Mandel said...

It's hard to write about what hasn't been written before. Almost everything has. Sounds like you did a great job with making your character unique.

Morgan Mandel

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Morgan. After you've read so many books, it's hard to know if a character you create is really unique. I tried, anyway.