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Will Shindler on getting to know your characters in The Killing Choice

Getting to know your own characters, especially in an ongoing series is an interesting experience. In some ways it mirrors real life. You meet someone, form an initial opinion, get to know them a little better, then start refining that first opinion. All of a sudden, you’re aware those early impressions weren’t necessarily accurate. Now you’ve properly acquainted yourself, you’re getting a much better handle on what makes your characters tick. And from there you can begin to tell when they’re more likely to be true to themselves, rather than to your carefully plotted out story.

And that’s when things start to get really interesting . . . when your characters decide they’re not going to conform with what you’ve got planned and start doing their own thing. There’s a moment in The Killing Choice when my protagonist Alex Finn abandons his team, flees the Incident room and deals with a burgeoning panic attack. It wasn’t in the original plan for the story but felt absolutely correct in context. I could have done without it to be honest – I had plans for Finn at that point in the narrative. Places he needed to be, people he needed to be talking to. Actual proper police work in fact. But all that had to be restructured, to accommodate my Detective Inspector and his increasingly fragile psyche.

I’m so glad I did as out of that moment came a new regular character who’s proving terribly useful to Finn’s ongoing story. Not just in this book, but in the next one too. He wasn’t in the original plan either, but now he’s forced his way in he’s beginning to get his feet under the table which is a very healthy sign. The moral of the story – be flexible and listen to your characters, because they’ll often take you into more interesting places than you’d originally conceived.

That said, sometimes they can be downright obstinate – my other lead character Mattie Paulsen is a case in point. I often find myself empathising with her long put-upon partner, Nancy. Paulsen has an irritating habit of stopping me in my writing tracks, crossing her arms and shaking her head at what I’m about to inflict upon her. And she does go through it a bit in The Killing Choice (Maybe I shouldn’t plan quite so much when I’ve got a cast this temperamental . . .) After a little thinking time I start seeing things from her point of view, and then the rewriting begins.

What I’ve noticed about Mattie, is she’s one of life’s over thinkers. When something happens to her, there’s invariably a consequence. She’ll take it home from work and brood on it. So as a writer, I’m always aware that if I plan to put her into challenging situations, I’ll need to give her the space afterwards to process it. Only then can I start asking her to move the plot forwards for me again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written a chapter, then re-read it and something doesn’t quite feel right. Invariably it’s not a plot point, it’s about the characters and where their heads authentically need to be – and only once you’ve identified that do things start slotting into place.

So two books in, Finn and Paulsen are starting to shape themselves. Now before I start a new novel, there’s almost a conversation that takes place between the three of us. Where we’re going to pick up from, where we’re going from there and where we’re likely to finish.  And with each book, they feel a little more authentic to me and less like character biogs spouting dialogue. Hopefully the reader is feeling that way too.  I’d love to tell you where they’re going, but out of the corner of my eye I can see Alex Finn, and he doesn’t look best pleased with me, so I’d probably best shut up at this point . . .


The Killing Choice is available to order now