Tag Archives: Pantser

Interviewing your Protagonist

One way to establish the character of the main players in your story is to interview them.

Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, it’s wise to make notes about your recurring characters, to help establish a world that feels realistic. This is especially true if writing a series. Not just their physical characteristics, but likes and dislikes, including phobias, and basic stuff like their birth dates. I was four books into my Cornish Detective series when I realised I hadn’t given my MC a birthday! Fortunately, there was a gap in the timeline of the plots to have him celebrate, albeit alone, on October 4th.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle is a widower. I’d written about his grieving and depression, but missed out an obvious detail—did he still wear his wedding ring? I re-edited the first three novels to put it on his finger, having him store it in a drawer in the fourth book when he’s rebuilding his personal life in a new house.

I might have avoided these omissions, had I interviewed him.


Taking the first question from the HuffPost article What do you do and are you good at it? Neil Kettle would respond:

“I’m a detective leading a murder investigation team. I joined the force when I was twenty-years-old, following the unexpected deaths of my parents. They wanted me to take over their sheep farm, but it wasn’t for me. Growing up there, surrounded by tranquillity made me appreciate the need for calm and order, which is what I try to restore to society as a policeman. Being a farmer’s son gave me patience and resourcefulness. I’m a grinder, never giving up until I get my suspect.”

That answer gives some idea of his background and brooding watchfulness. Also, he’s a modest man, preferring to get the job done, rather than boast about it.

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Immersed in plotting, punctuation, grammar, formatting and editing, it’s very easy to lose track of who your characters are as people. I’ve read some exciting crime novels which moved at quite a pace, with intriguing clues, but the hero was two-dimensional. Readers need to bond with the goodies and the villains if they’re going to read on and search out more of your stories.

It can be strangely intimidating to imagine sitting down opposite someone you’ve created, but who’s taken on an all too real identity in your mind, haunting your waking and sleeping hours.

It may be that you don’t like them very much, that they’re aggressive or annoying to be around. I based DCI Neil Kettle on various farmers and coppers I’ve known. There are aspects of him that I share, such as his liking of art, music, reading, cats, motorcycling and nature, but I’d find him too judgemental and reserved to be a friend.

Detectives have a saying, “Believe no one”. Neil Kettle has that caution and analytical way of observing people, which would be unsettling to experience, making me feel like I’d been up to no good from the way he looked at me! 

Which of your characters would you interview?

What would they say?

Are any of your antagonists too scary to be near?

What about the sexy ones?

Apart from your own characters, which famous fictional character would you like to interview and why?

I’d like to have a chinwag with Winnie The Pooh, who’s got his priorities right, but Ewan McGregor beat me to it, thanks to making Christopher Robin.

You and Your Manuscript

After writing my first novel The Perfect Murderer, I took a month to weed out filler words from the manuscript. My search was prompted by 43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing Immediately. When I started this exercise, I thought it would take a couple of days, but after noticing about 25 other words and phrases to remove I continued to plug away. Two months later, my manuscript was 9,000 words shorter.

I moved on to hunt for hyphens—words that need them, and those that don’t. This was time-consuming to do, and very boring too with none of the joy of creative writing. It set me to thinking about how differently I feel about a novel at different stages of writing it, then doing multiple edits, while trying to interest literary agents and publishers in it.

I’m a pantser as a writer, plotting loosely while still having a firm idea of what the overall themes will be. In making outline notes for a novel, I do more sketching of the natures of my characters than making a detailed plot. My protagonists direct the story as much as me. This planning stage feels a bit like drawing a rough diagram of a building on a scrap of paper, something that I will inhabit with fictional people who’ll construct the walls for me.

Actually writing a novel, I feel both involved and removed from the process. My characters sometimes do things that I haven’t anticipated, but which are true to their natures. Writing a crime novel means strewing red herrings all over the place, as detectives try to work out what’s going on, so I don’t worry too much about mazes and dead-end corridors that appear. All the same, it can feel a bit like directing the building of my house/novel from a distance. Reading through the latest chapters at the end of the day, to see if it makes sense, is like trying to learn the layout of a new building.

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Once finished, upon typing The End the editing begins. I become a building inspector, correcting features of my story-house—moving an illuminating window from one chapter to another, to reveal details that made my murderer act the way that he did. Overall, it looks like my story works, but as with any newly-built house, I know there’ll be plenty of bedding-in to come, with further adjustments needed.

Trying to flog the novel to literary agents, through queries and submissions of a writing sample from my story, requires so much polishing and hard work for so little response, that I feel like the world’s worst double-glazing salesman. While trying to ingratiate myself with these gatekeepers, my story house sits neglected and empty with no visitors. I don’t read it anymore, and though I’m proud of my creation, it’s also a museum of old thoughts. I want to make something new.

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Tired of scrutinising my manuscript, which feels more like a forensic examination of each and every brick for integrity, I yearn for fresh writing challenges. I’ve become numb to whether the story works as a story, after picking sentences and individual words apart with tweezers and scalpel.

So, my novel has gone from a rough sketch to a building project followed by a second-fixing, correction, mopping-up exercise, onto being a product that I hawked from door to door, before I turned neurotic, micro-managing the elements that I used to construct my monster like Doctor Frankenstein.

Have any of you gone through similar shifts of attitude to their work?

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