“When Character Counts” (by Brendan DuBois)

The staff at EQMM has always had a special interest in the careers of authors who have debuted in our Department of First Stories. Brendan DuBois is one of those special writers. His appearance in the Department of First Stories was in 1986, and he has gone on to write sixteen novels and more than 135 short stories (yes, that last figure is correct!). Pegasus Books published his latest novel, Fatal Harbor, in May 2014, and his next book, Blood Foam, will appear in June 2015, also from Pegasus.
Brendan’s most recent short story for EQMM was September/October 2014’s “The Very Best Neighbor”; we’ve got another of his stories coming up in February 2015 (“Leap of Faith”) and a couple more later in the new year. The New Hampshire author’s short fiction has also appeared in Playboy, AHMM, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and numerous anthologies. He’s had stories chosen for both The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century and The Best American Noir of the Century.
Brendan’s stories have twice won the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award, and have also garnered three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the MWA. There are not many writers who have excelled like this at both long and short fiction; in the following post, the author shares one of the secrets to his success. —Janet Hutchings

At some point in my writing career, I suddenly realized I had gone from the new kid on the block to . . . dare I say it? . . . an old, grizzled veteran of the mystery-writing field. Oh, I’m grizzled if I let my beard go, and even though I was born when Eisenhower was president, I still think I’m a young guy with lots still to learn. My first short story appeared in EQMM back in 1986, and yes, I still get a thrill every time a new one is published. Yet there I was, no longer the new kid with his nose pressed up against the glass looking in, but being inside the world of fiction writing, someone who’s not only been around the block once or twice, but who’s been around the entire neighborhood.

So what does this mean? Do I get a membership card in the Old Writers Society? Or a discount on printer cartridges at Staples? No, but it does mean I get asked lots of questions.

Sometimes, there I am, at a writing conference or seminar, gladly answering questions from fellow authors just breaking into the field, or who are still struggling to tell their story. I get lots of questions. Do I write from an outline or do I just let the story take me? What was my writing schedule? Do I write noir, hardboiled, cozy, soft-boiled, thriller, or any particular combination thereof? How did I get an agent? Does a writer need an agent? Do you write on a Mac or an IBM clone? How do you plot? Where do you get your ideas? How do you do research?

Lots of questions over the years, lots of answers provided, but I soon realized that my questioners weren’t asking me what I considered a vital part of mystery writing—any writing, in fact—namely, characters. The people that populate your story, the ones who talk, who act, who sometimes die and who sometimes solve a crime.

In my humble opinion, everything else in constructing— and then writing—a story is like building an arch. You can have your background, your research, your plot, your plot twists, all of them rising up into the sky, reaching for each other.

But if you don’t have that keystone of living, breathing and sympathetic characters, everything is going to come crashing down.

So put a lot of thought into your characters before breathing life into them and setting them loose on the page.


I suppose you want me to tell you how to do this.


Start off with the plot and who has to be there to tell the story. Usually I start with MC . . . no, not the rapper MC Hammer. My MC stands for Main Character. If there’s more than one, then MC1, MC2, MC3 and so forth and so on.

Then, get to the basics. You’re going to be a first-year anatomy student (or a failed medical student now working in a remote mountain laboratory), assembling different parts into a living, breathing creature. Think of people you know, or family members. Your neighbor’s braying laugh. Your brother’s thick hair. The store clerk constantly chomping on gum. Know the details of where they are, where they’ve been, and what they look like. Pretty soon you’ll have the characters you need.

But they’re still dead. Honest. You need that breath of life, that spark, that bolt of lightning.

And that’s when the hard/fun part comes up.

You have to ask yourself these most important questions: Who is this character, what is her background, and what drives her to do what she does?

And then, the most dangerous part of this process pops up: Cliche Corner.

We’ve all read them, and we might even have written them: the bitter ex-cop. The grieving widow. The schoolteacher who just knows the vice principal is a creep. The sweet old lady who’s secretly a stone-cold killer. The hit man with the heart of gold.

Don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s why they’re called cliches, because they’re easy to come up with, easy to use.

Again, don’t.

Reach way down inside and find out what makes your characters stand out, what makes them different, what makes the reader care about them. Look at yourself, brutally and honestly. Although most of us have a very high opinion of ourselves, there are always little dark places. The fury that comes while driving in traffic and someone cuts you off. The thoughts of committing injury (or worse) when you read about a criminal injuring a child or a pet. The dark satisfaction in realizing that you’ve managed to slip a deduction past the hardworking ladies and gentlemen of the IRS.

And also realize this: Even the worst person out there, the most vicious criminal or sociopath, he or she thinks there is a reason for what they are doing. It may not be logical, or make sense, but there’s a reason. Nobody acts in a vacuum, nobody does something for no reason at all.

Maybe you’re disagreeing with me. That’s fine. In writing—and especially mystery writing—there’s always room for challenges, for disagreements. That’s okay. But I’ll leave you with this—

Think back to the last couple of novels you’ve read. What stands out? The slam-bang climatic scene? The car chase? The tearful confession where All Is Revealed? The plot twist? Or plot twists? Or is it the character? Or the characters?

It’s been years since I read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but it would only take seconds for me to recall the characters of Dr. Hannibal Lecter or FBI Agent Clarice Starling. Or Jack Reacher, in Lee Child’s very first novel, The Killing Floor. Or even Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

That’s what makes a story. That’s what stays in a reader’s mind.

Start with your character.

And if all else fails, look in the mirror.


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3 Responses to “When Character Counts” (by Brendan DuBois)

  1. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Sage advice, Brendan. Thank you!

  2. Lou manfredo says:

    Could not agree more. There are lots of great stories, and they’re easy enough to tell; but character development, that’s the hard part. Thanks for the guidelines, I’m gonna steal them!

  3. Josh Pachter says:

    An excellent post, Brendan — but who would expect anything less than excellence from you?!

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