I’ve always loved writing suspense for a number of reasons. I love the fight for justice and the assurance that the good guys will always win. I love taking a real-world situation, like human trafficking, or a bio-terrorism threat, and dropping my characters into the middle of the chaos as they risk their lives to make things right. In a world where there is not always happy endings, I can still create that happy ending for my hero and heroine.
But none of that matters if readers don’t care about the characters.
When I first started writing, I remember reading the first chapter of my novel out loud to my critique group. I was unpublished, but convinced that I had a gripping best-seller on my hands. At least that’s what I thought until they told me the truth. They recommended that I take my chapter home and rewrite it because my characters were nothing more than cardboard figures.
I’ve learned a lot about writing since then, and one of my main goals now is ensuring my characters come to life for the reader. But how do you do that? I know many authors who interview their characters before they start writing, or use an excel sheet to keep track of motivations and fears. While I don’t do either of those, I work hard to get to know my characters while I’m writing, and I always ensure I know their backstory. I want their pasts and the present to collide, upping the stakes and complicating the dynamics of the story.
So how do you do that?
Humanize your characters
As a reader, I love the rush of a page-turning suspense story, but to me, it’s the personal relationship arcs that add depth to the plot and draws me in deeper. Give the hero a troubling past and the heroine a dark secret she’s terrified to face. What are their secret dreams and desires? What have they lost in life? What do they fear? What do they want? Do they have any vices? What do they see when they look in the mirror? Find a way to tie in one or two of these into the story.
When the reader can see the human side of the protagonist through their internal struggles, a one-dimensional plot can be further developed, because it’s this personal side of the story that will bring their humanity to the forefront.
Make it personal
I watch a lot of police procedurals, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that when the main characters’ lives are at stake, I’m much more involved in the story compared to when it’s just another case to solve. How does this translate into our writing? The deeper our protagonists are involved in the plot on a personal level, the more they have to lose when things go wrong. This will in turn have our readers engaged on an even deeper level with our stories.
Dig into your own emotions
While a lot of people love an adrenalin rush from extreme sports, amusement parks, and even high-stress jobs, I don’t. At all. Call me a wimp, but I don’t like anything that gets my adrenaline going. And certainly not any of the scenarios I put my characters through. I want to keep those situations in the books I read.
Until it happened to me.
We’d just finished eating outside on our veranda, but hadn’t locked the security gate for the evening. I was in the kitchen cleaning up, our daughter was doing homework in the living room, and my husband was in his office. I remember looking up as three armed men with masks walked into the house. They told me to be quiet while one of them grabbed my daughter’s cell phone out of her hand. I froze momentarily. Seconds passed as my mind struggled to process what was happening. I remember then shouting to my husband that there were men in the house and they had a gun.
That moment and the events that followed have been forever etched into my mind. Thankfully, up until that night, I’d never experience terror like that, and I hope to never experience it again. But we’ve all been angry, jealous and scared. Pull up the emotions and experiences you’ve faced in your life. Remember what it felt like, physically and emotionally. Not only is it good therapy, J but you will be better able to show what your characters are going through and how they react to a situation.
Show don’t tell
You have probably heard the phrase show don’t tell, but it’s essential to remember, especially when you want your reader to feel that emotional tug. We want to see the hero’s reaction to devastating news, and feel alongside the heroine as she struggles to make an impossible choice. Instead of summarizing the situation or simply telling us the hero is angry or sad, use his actions and thoughts to express what is happening.
Motivation is key
I’ve always told new writers that you can make almost anything work in a story, but you have to have the motivation to fit the scenario. Know your character well enough to be able to show how they would react to a situation. When you can flesh out your protagonist’s motivations and fears you will be able to have them react emotionally in a way consistent to who they are and in turn make what they do believable, instead of pulling the reader out of the story.
It is those very personal and emotional experiences, that will increase a story’s powerful experience for your readers, and make for a novel that won’t be soon forgotten, even long after the last page is turned.
BIO: LISA HARRIS is a Christy Award finalist for Blood Ransom and Vendetta, Christy Award winner for Dangerous Passage, and the winner of the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel for 2011 (Blood Covenant) and 2015 (Vendetta) from Romantic Times. In her latest novel, the Escape from Revell, two US Marshals are thrust into a high-profile case when they are called on to transport two prisoners across the country on a private plane in this high-octane game of cat-and-mouse. She has over forty novels and novella collections in print. She and her family have spent almost two decades working as missionaries in Africa. When she’s not working she loves hanging out with her family, cooking different ethnic dishes, photography, and heading into the African bush on safari. For more information about her books and life in Africa visit her website at www.lisaharriswrites.com
Madison James and Jonas Quinn are prepared for anything when it comes to locating and apprehending the most dangerous of fugitives. A routine prison transfer should’ve been just another day on the job—until a sudden plane engine failure forces a crash-landing deep in the heart of the sprawling Salmon-Challis National Forest. When the smoke clears, convict Damon Barrick is nowhere to be found. Madison and Jonas must track Barrick through the rugged Pacific Northwest before he escapes for good—but what happens when a criminal who is desperate to disappear has nothing to lose? With just the right mix of romance and suspense, this fast-paced thriller will have your heart pumping until the very last page.