12 Elements of Crime Fiction

Fresh, unique ideas sell books, right?

Not necessarily.

Even the freshest idea must follow specific ‘rules’ or elements of the genre.

Don’t believe me? Then why in almost every romance novel the main character has one or more dead parents and the poor orphan was often raised by a kindly/odd/distant aunt or uncle? Or better yet, why is it that in an urban fantasy, the female lead is always haunted by something, whether it’s a real ghost or the ghost of boyfriend past, or in some cases herself?

Crime fiction is perhaps the worst offender.

And that’s why I love it.

These elements and rules give crime fiction its grit and style.

Mind you, not every one of the elements I list below will be in every book. But I bet that if you pull a copy of any crime novel off your bookshelf, you’ll find at least one and likely many more inside.

  1. The hooker/thug with the heart of gold
  2. Substance use/abuse
  3. A dirty cop
  4. A bottle of booze hidden in a desk/cabinet/toilet tank
  5. A femme fatale
  6. The term “Doll face” or “Baby doll”, really just some reference to a doll
  7. A description of a woman’s legs, in vivid detail
  8. A lounge/bar/nightclub/strip club
  9. A guy named “Fast” something, usually Eddie
  10. A dead partner/lover and/or betrayal by a former partner/lover
  11. Pipe/cigarette smoking hero and/or villain
  12. A dead body in the first 10 pages

Got any more? What about the genre which you write, what are the 'rules' in it?

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Non-Human Characters

Birds and beasts, werewolves and vampires, fairies and trolls, rakshasas and dragons and inari okami (and did you think of a western European dragon or a Chinese dragon)? Aliens. Some or all of these can populate your work . . . for good or ill.

Liesa Malik and I will be talking about writing non-human characters at the Colorado Gold Conference, so this post is short because it's a teaser to come to that workshop and I want to invite you to come and talk to us about YOUR non-human characters and brainstorm with us.

I have spent my career writing non-human characters – everything from a mole (yes, a mole, the earth-digging-nearly-blind animal) to a planet (actually two planets, one of them Earth). My Heart series – futuristic/fantasy set in a Celtic pagan culture – features telepathic animal companions and has since the first book. In fact, I think the cat character in that book, Zanth, sold HeartMate.

Since then, I've written a slew of animal companions including (of course) a puppy and dogs, cats of various colors and attitudes, and have branched out to foxes, raccoons and most recently birds, a hawk and a raven.

I do my homework on the animals, how they live, their social structures, what they eat, how they might think. I want my readers to believe these animals are not just humans in disguise. And Liesa and I will talk about how to do that research, hands-on and otherwise.

Unlike many people writing urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance, I've only written one shapeshifter hero – a jaguar-man – and absolutely no vampires. Though since I write in those genres I've read a lot of books on both. I know what I, personally, like in a vampire and werewolf, and how the myths have been explored by various authors.

So, we'll add in shapeshifters and vampires as common characters – both as good guys and as monsters that can highlight your very human characters.

And Liesa, especially, has studied the market for writing animals, and the fantasy genre is full of variety, and in science fiction humans continue to interact with alien races.

Yes, we do have peeves about how animals and monsters are portrayed, don't you? Come share those with us.

And, yes, I also write ghosts, mostly of people of the Old West, but I consider those humans . . . except the evil one . . . oh, and the Labrador spirit guide. No, neither of those are human . . . .

So drop by and talk with us about your non-human characters and why you love them. And what makes them different. Or how you want to delve into a different psyche.

See you at the Colorado Gold!

Creating Dynamic Characters

Well-developed characters make for great reading, but also for fun writing. It's such an amazing feeling when a character wakes up and starts doing stuff without a lot of direction from me.

As you've probably noticed, there are a thousand-and-one approaches to character development. A lot of writers use work sheets that ask for details ranging from eye color and shoe size to favorite song and which high school the character graduated from. I think these sheets are awesome, but since I am not  detail oriented and get easily distracted, I have yet to complete one. Inevitably I get bored and wander off to write something more exciting.

I honestly don't have a conscious process for creating my characters. Usually, when I sit down and start writing they kindly show up and start talking. I don't consciously sit down and plot out what kind of character they are going to be.

But, I have a background in mental health and I suspect my subconscious is in on the game and kindly supplying me with information. When I stop to think about it and try to analyze my process, I realize that I am relying on a few basic principles.

  1. I make sure the character has a cohesive personality. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? Somebody who is intuitive and flexible, or somebody who likes rules and structure and routines? Do they talk a lot, or prefer to keep things to themselves? Then I make sure that they stick to this, unless there's a damn good reason for them to break away from their usual behavior.
  2. What is the character's defining life event? Here I am talking about those experiences we go through that change us forever. Most of us have a number of these, but there is often one particular occurrence that changes everything. Pay attention to your friends and family, really listen, and you'll often hear it. Look for the "before" and "after" type words for your clues: Before the divorce … After the accident… Ever since I was diagnosed with… People tend to mark everything in their lives by this one defining event.
  3. I also pay attention to core values. What is most important to your character. Family? Independence? Success? Belonging? Individuality? Once you know what these are, you can really up the stakes in your plot by throwing your character into a situation where there most deeply chereished values are threatened and tested.

For example, in my paranormal mystery, Dead Before Dying, (releasing Feb. 9 from Diversion Books) Paranormal Investigator Maureen Keslyn's top value is independence, followed closely by a love of personal challenge, and pursuing justice. In this story she's about to turn sixty, has recently been injured on the job, and is physically vulnerable for the first time in her life. She's also facing a situation where someone or something is killing off elderly people in a nursing home. This set up makes it easy to set up suspense and emotional tension and keep it going throughout the book.

I'll be talking more about character development at the workshop I'll be co-presenting with the Heather Webb at the Colorado Gold Conference. Hope to see you there!