May 16, 2023
Character Creation

Character Creation

A Shared Strategy for Mystery Writers and Trial Lawyers
By James Polkinghorn

When we think back on our favorite novels in just about any genre, what is it that first comes to mind? Usually, regardless of the complexity or ingenuity of the plot, the first thing that stirs in our memory is our attachment to the protagonist as he or she navigated whatever course the author set for him or her.

Sometimes, on the other hand, we’re connected by a shared revulsion for the nemesis introduced in the early pages. Books that didn’t capture us featured lead characters with whom we couldn’t (or didn’t) connect viscerally, in either a positive or negative way.

Trial lawyers, of which I am one, are very aware of the notion of primacy. Jurors brought together to decide important issues in a group setting with complete strangers naturally seek things to hold onto as the information of the trial begins to flow. Their task is made more difficult by the prohibition they received from the judge at the outset denying them the opportunity to share their impressions with–or seek support from– their fellow jurors until the presentation of evidence is concluded, which is often a period of days or weeks. How do they do it? What happens?

They form subconscious impressions, that’s what. We know that jurors are watching us carefully at all times when we’re in their presence, not just when we’re examining witnesses or making arguments. They notice how we interact with the courtroom personnel. They notice our appearance. They notice our voices and our changes of tone. They see our nervous tics or other expressions of anxiety. All of the jurors do these things individually as we get ready to make our presentations, beginning in the jury selection process and ending with closing arguments.

So when a lawyer gets up to make an opening statement–the single most important event in the trial–when she tells the jurors what the evidence will show, she has clear goals in mind if she has been well trained. She intends to establish some rapport with each juror individually, through eye contact and body language. And she intends to tell a story that conveys her sincere belief in her client’s cause using language that is impactful at an emotional level. She wants the jurors to feel her as much as hear her, to connect with the words she weaves in their guts as much as their brains. She wants the jurors to trust her, personally. When all of this is done effectively, the jurors form deep attachments, both to the lawyer and to her story, they will not easily give up. They will hear everything that follows in the trial through the filter formed in those first minutes and, experience shows, they are often unshakable.

What does this mean for writers and readers of fiction? Capable authors know, sometimes through hard experience, that it’s critical to introduce lead characters early and to introduce them in a way that induces a gut-level reaction in the reader that compels the reader forward, anxious to get to know this person better and learn how he or she will solve the mystery, crime or other problem soon to be revealed. As readers, we may not be aware of this subtle manipulation of our emotions, but knowing of this does nothing to diminish our enjoyment of a book because the connection is subconscious and independent of our rational thinking.

Take Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, THE SUN ALSO RISES, as an example. We are introduced to Jake Barnes, a WWI veteran living in Paris during the mid-1920’s, as he describes another man, Robert Cohn, an acquaintance he knows socially. “Robert” and “Cohn” are actually the first two words of the novel. We get to know about Jake by the qualities he describes in Robert, the things that make an impression on him. This very clever and indirect introduction carries forward through social interplay during which Robert asks Jake about a woman, Brett Ashley. We learn a little more about Jake as he responds to Robert’s questions before, eventually, we find ourselves sitting in a taxi with Brett and Jake as the nature of their relationship is revealed, creating a response that carries us the rest of the way as the lives of these two unfold before us.

Another good, and more recent, example is Nelson DeMille’s classic, THE GOLD COAST. There we are introduced to John Sutter, an attorney and resident of an ancestral estate on the Gold Coast of Long Island, as he meets his new neighbor at a local nursery. His new neighbor is Frank Bellarosa, a notorious mafia don. The banal interaction that follows gives us immediate insight into John’s way of thinking (and his omnipresent sense of humor). There follows an introduction to John’s wife, Susan, including an outdoor sexual escapade, that gives us a real sense of foreboding, as we think of it, about how the interaction of these three characters will play out. We find ourselves turning pages quickly to reach their next encounters, all in service to a plot that is not so much complex as engrossing. It’s the characters we’re interested in rather than the specifics of the story structure.

John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport novels provide a twist on the device. He typically introduces us to the murderer first, allowing us to inhabit the person’s mind as his motivations, character and actions are revealed. We react viscerally, and subconsciously tether to the belief that this person must be stopped. At which point, Lucas Davenport is introduced, a dangerous and brilliant man fully capable of doing the stopping. The question remains as to how exactly this will happen, but our primary interest is in the ultimate interaction between these two.

A good example is EXTREME PREY, where we first meet Marlys Purdy, a political zealot, as she dispassionately and brutally kills and butchers one of the rabbits she raises on her property. The details of the killing stick with us as we learn more about her thoughts and plans, knowing that once again Lucas Davenport will somehow set things right. The key, of course, is that we already have a fixed sense of what must happen: the path to its happening is of lesser importance.

In all three of these novels, and in most of the novels you fondly remember, the same basic process unfolds. A primary player is introduced through action revealing traits of character that attract or repel us, a bond is viscerally formed and we move forward anxiously awaiting whatever is in store. Knowing that authors understand this process does nothing to undermine our enjoyment of their work, although it is sometimes fun to go back and see exactly how it happened.

About the Author

James Polkinghorn is a lawyer and partner in a national law firm specializing in labor and employment law. He has extensive trial and litigation experience in multiple jurisdictions throughout the country. A Pittsburgh native, Polkinghorn moved with his family to Florida in high school, where he has since stayed. He has a degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Florida. He now lives in Key West with his wife, Becki, and their dog, Major Tom. Liquid Shades of Blue is his first novel. To learn more, please visit the author’s website.


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