Now that we’ve completed Parts One and Two of Developing Believable Characters, your characters’ personas have identified themselves by name, they now breathe and feel sensation, and are busily engaged in establishing their purpose in life, you must, at this point, race to put thoughts to pen and paper in order to keep track of what they’re up to. And since they’ve most captivatingly come to life, you should make note and classify their different character types. I will go into character types with more detail in Part Four of Developing Believable Characters, and familiarize you with the foremost fundamental types for your protagonist, antagonist and sidekicks.
For the most part, it is a challenge for any writer to set the stage using the techniques of building tension while trying to pull the readers into the life and concerns of the main character, yet and still, trying to win the reader’s curiosity about the story’s plot. Those first opening pages will either make or break a story by winning or losing the reader’s interest. This is all happening while you’re actively creating new lives and perhaps even new worlds, such as in science and fantasy fiction.
Crafting well-formed characters is essential, even if a character is only temporary in the opening pages. Let's say, you want to use a temporary character to build surmounting tension in the first few pages of a murder mystery. You may choose to start by showing a damsel in distress. For example:
She tore through the spiky leaves of nolina scrubs amid other tall overgrowths scattered amongst the tall grasses and woodlands native to the pine forest of Southern California. She ran, now far off any well-trodden trail. Thick vines crisscrossed her path, threatening to yank her downward. Strands from her thick curtain of dark hair were ripped from their roots, grabbed by angry fingers from towering, thorny bushes. If it weren’t for her long, well-muscled legs acquired during the many years of running long distant marathons, Candice, a graduate student from one of the nearby universities, would not have had the strength to keep running. Fear masked her face, but she dared not waste a moment glancing back. She sensed her predator’s gain, hearing his footfall thunder through the thickets. Advancing.
It was quick. There was no time left for contemplation or assessing damage. There was only the sheer sensation of white-pain. A blade pierced the tender flesh and bones of her spine. Her head yanked back, pulled by the length of her streaming locks. In an instant, before her heart stopped beating, Candice knew—she would possess no more tomorrows.
She felt no pain. There was no awareness of his rabid savagery; his vicious violation of her person, his ravaging of her body. All of her past triumphs, as well as all future aspirations she may have believed she’d live to accomplish had, at this moment, come to an end. Sexually spent, Candice’s assailant carried her naked, limp body further into a small opening girdled by tall pine; there, he strapped her body to a young tree half the height of its towering sisters. He then meticulously slices overlapping initials M and W into her chest.
Beneath the crested initials, he carves a small eye.
Even though Candice was a temporary character, she effectively opens the door for the reader to enter a murder mystery. In a few substantial paragraphs the reader was made aware of a great many things; they’ve been taken to a wooded area of pine trees with an overgrowth of prickly shrubs and tall grasses located somewhere in Southern California. The reader can picture a young athletic woman running for her life, chased by a killer-madman, and they must be wondering how Candice managed to get herself into that situation. They’re also curious as to who the madman is. The reader was introduced to this short-lived character by her first name only. Since she is short-lived, that is the only name they need to know. And, giving her at least a first name makes it more personal for the reader, more so than only using a pronoun throughout the scene. This better allows them to create an image of her in their mind’s eye; run with her and feel her fear. It also allows them to want to know more about her, learning that she is an accomplished marathon runner, and a graduate student possibly working on her Master’s or PhD, enthused about her future. From her short scenario, they can feel some empathy towards her and, perhaps, a sense of loss, joined with anger and distain towards her depraved killer.
Through the use of the temporary character to build tension and curiosity, the reader should now want to turn the pages, eager to discover who will find Candice’s lone body left crudely strapped to a tree. They’d want to know if this was the killer’s first kill; and, who will be the hero amongst the authorities to help find this madman and avenge Candice’s death. And, as well, will there be more killings?
In this murder mystery case, as far as character type, no further description is needed for Candice. She has played her role fully. Of course, you would learn more about her later on through the main and supporting characters, along with any other information involving the killer’s past or future victims. And, you may have noticed, you have yet to learn who the main character or any supporting characters are. Even so, you feel you’ve been taken, with heightened curiosity, well into the story.
Next, in Part Four of Developing Believable Characters, we’ll explore, more in-depth, the meaning of character type.