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How to Write Believable Characters by Carmen Radtke

I am pleased to welcome my friend and fellow author, Carmen Radtke back to the blog. This time she shares her expertise on how to write good characters well. Thank you for your time today, Carmen.

Thank you for having me on your blog, Val. I think drawing believable characters is essential to writing a good book and so I am happy to share my thoughts with your readers today.

"I wish these women were my friends.” The young man nodded to himself. “That’s it, actually. That’s my main takeaway.”

He fell silent. So was I, outwardly. Inside, my heart sang.

The young man wasn’t just any reader, he was also a writer and member of a now defunct critique group.

His praise for my main characters came only a few days after a message had popped into my inbox, where another male reader told me, “I dig Alyssa.”

It all comes down to creating believable characters. I remember reading a book once, where the author lost me because the cash-strapped heroine spent $2000 in a shoe store. $2000! In a book, written in the 1990.

My heroines don’t do that. To paraphrase Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, it all comes down to character. To be believable, reactions must be plausible, even in my cozy murder mysteries. Evildoers must have a good reason for doing bad things, other than that they’re just baddies.

If Alyssa Chalmers, or Jack and Frances, or Eve Holdsworth, or Genie and Adriana Darling go sleuthing, there has to be no other, easier way for them. If they could simply leave it all to the police, there’d be no way the reader is going to be hooked.

For my Victorian era heroine, Alyssa, it’s the lack of law enforcement, as well as the trouble to be taken seriously as a woman and an outsider, that sets her on her investigative path.

Most of my female characters are a little ahead of their time and yet grounded in their respective eras. They have to be, or it would be alternate realities.

Frances, star of my longest series, has come of age in the beginning of the Great Depression. She is carrying the responsibility for paying the bills, so she has to carefully weigh every decision. It’s not just about the question when to spend a few pennies on the tram or if she can easily walk instead. It’s also about deciding between following her conscience when, in the line of her duty as telephone exchange operator, she overhears what sounds like a criminal conspiracy.

Her first instinct is to report it. Her second instinct is to stay quiet, because she could lose her job for breaking confidentiality. If she’s out on the streets, she’ll be unable to pay the mortgage, and she, her mother and her godfather would be homeless. But she can’t ignore her moral obligations …

It's dilemmas like that or small things like personal vanity, a tendency to show off, all the little traits that we admire or dislike about ourselves and others, that make characters believable.

Fiction can be far removed from real live – the closest contact I’ve had to homicide and other serious crimes were as reporter, covering the police desk and the courts. But it must be grounded in reality.

One of my favourite books is Richard Adams’ “Watership Down”. The characters are rabbits. Yet we can all understand their motivation, fear for their safety, and hope for a happy ending.

Characters are believable when we discover a little bit of ourselves in them. Even Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic psychopath and unforgettable protagonist, has traits most of us recognise. Lector is is highly educated, cultured, a lover of the arts, and he has a sense of fairness and chivalry. I’s these things that make him so irresistible as a villain.

I don’t write about cannibals, but I write about people I can understand. And if somebody tells me they wish my heroines were their friends, I’m more than happy.

The Author

Carmen has spent most of her life with ink on her fingers, cozy crime plots on her mind (thanks, Agatha Christie) and a dangerously high pile of books and newspapers by her side.

She has worked as a newspaper reporter on two continents and always dreamt of becoming a novelist and screenwriter.

Her first Alyssa Chalmers novel, The Case of the Missing Bride, was a finalist in the Malice Domestic competition in a year without a winner. Since then she has penned several more cozy mysteries, including the Jack and Frances series set in the 1930s.

Genie and the Ghost is the first in a series of fun-filled paranormal cozy mysteries.

In real life, Carmen is absolutely law-abiding, has never met a ghost or been able to communicate with pets (sad, but true). The only time she shed blood and swatted a fly was by accident.

Her wanderlust has led her to live in Germany, New Zealand, and the UK. She currently lives in Italy with her human and her four-legged family.

If you want to keep in touch with her and find out more about her work, writing life, and other related things, sign up for her newsletter on her website and receive a free quick read!

You can also follow her on Amazon, BookBub and Facebook.

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