Fictional Character Development Techniques

When people learn that I write fiction, they often ask how I develop the concepts for myMH900422224 main characters. The answer is simple: from observing people in their everyday lives. The long answer, however, is much more complex.

While it’s true that I often base a character on real people, transforming a mental image of someone into a fictional character is an intricate process. It’s comparable to applying multiple layers of varnish onto raw wood. You apply, buff, reapply, rebuff and continue the process until the wood develops depth and beauty.

Character development, in similar ways, layers all the components of a person (or those of several people) in order to build a multi-dimensional being that the reader can connect with in the two-dimensional world of literature.

MH900432847In the process of developing a character, I follow something called a 3P Model. I structure a character physiologically, psychologically and philosophically.

The Physical Aspects of a Character: You should have a good idea what your character looks like before conveying that to a reader. Physical appearance should first be locked down in your own mind. Even if you never specifically describe that character’s anatomical features in your writing, you should visualize a definite image.

Appearances often influence how others act. Hints of physical attributes give the reader much needed information to arrive at an accurate mental image. These images allow your readers to feel comfortable about how your character acts and how they interact with others in your story.

But a seasoned writer rarely goes into detail describing a character. Instead of saying,MH900443125 “She’s five foot eleven, has red hair and weighs 110-lbs”, you might say, “Her legs went on forever, her waistline the envy of most women, her flaming hair a perfect complement to her peaches and cream complexion,” or some other subtle, more pictorial description. Be creative, not biological, when describing characters.

The Psychology of the Character: A character’s mental state—their feelings and their perceptions of the world around them—drive their actions. This is where background development becomes so important. Create a virtual life for your main characters, a pedigree that makes them who they are and which determines their actions. For example, a person raised in a loving family with close siblings would react differently in a given situation than a person who grew up in foster care or reform school.

It’s said that we are the product of our life experiences. For readers to be able to connect with the characters we create, we have to construct full lives for our characters. That MH900448407means we should know where and how they were raised, educated and what sacrifices they endured to reach their present state in life. Most of what you envision (preferably in a brief outline) will never actually be stated in your book unless it’s important for the story’s progress, but it provides valuable information for you to direct your character and further the story.

Knowing how a character would feel in a scene provides important visual clues that you can use to indicate what a character is thinking and feeling without wasting dialogue. For instance, a character fidgeting indicates nervousness and putting a hand over the mouth could express disbelief.

The reader should be satisfied that a character is acting appropriately in any given scene. Your job as a writer is not only to write the scene but also to direct your characters to act accordingly. A reader should never say, “Hmm, he would never have done that!” It takes the reader out of the story and you lose the reader’s emotional connection to the character.

The Character’s Philosophy: Each of us has opinions and beliefs about most any given subject. Our characters should also be definitive, and those distinct beliefs and philosophies are what drive the story one way or the other. An indifferent character doesn’t make for good storytelling.

A character can be indecisive initially and that can create important dramatic tension, butMH900442299 at some point their inner principles must take over. Without a character with strong viewpoints, there’s no reason for the character to take action—and that translates to NO STORY! Action moves a story forward and motivates our protagonists and antagonists to do what they should do to entertain the reader.

Characters can be good or bad, but rarely should they be neutral. Definitive characters create and drive your story. A villain’s selfishness and greed make good fiction as well as the altruistic concerns of a hero, but neutral characters lose the reader’s interest.

Finally, success is in the details. A well-conceived character has likes, dislikes, and specific needs—just as real people do. Everyone has merits, flaws and quirks. Your dialogue and narrative should be peppered with those of your main characters. The more these individual traits are exposed, the more emotional connection the reader has with a character. Make your characters real and believable by first making them real to you.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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The Makings of a Hero

draw,glasses,hand,in,mouth,illustration,thinking,type,machine,writer-bc5f6977780ab1c98071f6be04bfc0c9_mThere’s nothing better than a memorable protagonist in any story, and the good guy in a murder mystery saves the day by solving the crime and bringing the perpetrator to justice. So for the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share a few character development tips that I use.

To develop storylines for thrillers and murder mysteries, character development is paramount. As dramatic as it is for someone to die on paper or an e-screen, it’s the actions of the protagonist that make the story come alive. So after deciding what should happen to begin the story’s journey, I think of how that will affect the protagonist.

Our character’s reactions to scene situations are what drive the story forward. If someone gets murdered and a police detective says, “Oh well, another day, another murder,” the readers’ reactions will be mundane as well and they’ll move on to another book. We have to give our readers a sense of urgency, a reason to turn the pages and to care about what’s taking place. And that only occurs when the protagonist cares to the point of obsession.

We, as writers, must perceive our protagonists as complex psychological beings driven byMH900431819 various combinations of past experiences, emotional baggage, current likes/dislikes/frustrations and future expectations. We are driven by our past experiences and future possibilities, and so are our characters—none more so than our main character, the one driving the storyline.

When we tap into the raw emotions of our protagonists—the hurts, the joys, the anger and disappointment, their driving forces—that’s when we begin to reveal a deeper story. Whether you consider a novel plot driven or not, the characters actually propel the action forward.

The trigger may be a murder, a series of them or some other great evil, but the real story is how the protagonist will arrive at a solution to the presented problem. Without tapping into the back-story of the main characters, there can be no story in the present. There must be motivations directing our characters to do what they do to restore equilibrium to the world as it’s presented.

Primarily, those motivations come from a mix of external and internal changes that office-superhero_650happen as the story progresses. Externally, the character must achieve something and be better off at the end of the story than at the beginning. It may be a newfound romance or a job change, but there must be some character transformation to entice readers to push forward to the last page.

Even more importantly, we must draw in the readers’ emotions and cause them to become invested in the character’s world. That happens when the protagonist undergoes an internal change: a shift of viewpoint, a realization of a source of fear or achieves some significant resolution.

But that change, that paradigm shift, should not happen easily. It should affect the character to his or her very core. That internal struggle gives depth to the story, and the eventual acceptance of the change makes the believable lie that fiction is . . .well, believable.

And there are no rules that require those changes to be for the better. Tragedy happens allWhy-Superhero-Movies-Need-Tragedy the time in real life and it’s especially dramatic when it happens in a well-written novel. The protagonist MUST undergo an internal and external change for the reasons stated above, but those changes may well end in tragedy.

A protagonist may deal with a life-long struggle of achievement and acceptance, only to lose a prized possession in the end. This character is forever changed because of the loss, but that may be necessary for the character’s life to progress in a certain way. So even in adversity, there is an evolution in the character.

When I develop a storyline for a murder mystery or thriller, the evil lurking beyond reach becomes the supporting pillar for the real story of the protagonist’s reactions to the events and what those actions eventually cost the character.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Ketamine – A Bad Trip or a New Therapy Option

Home_AnestheticPeriodically, ketamine abuse is reported in news broadcasts or is the subject of TV dramas. Most of us have heard of the street name or slang terms for ketamine: Cat Valium, Jet K, Kit Kat, Special K, Super K, Vitamin K and a few others.

Although the drug is manufactured as the injectable liquid ketamine hydrochloride, the liquid is usually evaporated into a white powder for illicit use. Illegally, the drug is either snorted or swallowed.

Ketamine is tasteless and, although the drug is described as odorless, various reports indicate the drug has a mild dish detergent smell. At any rate, ketamine can easily be added to flavored drinks without detection. Ketamine is versatile. It is absorbed either via the intravenous, intramuscular, oral or topical routes and it easily dissolves in water, alcohol or lipid solutions.

Because the drug mixes well into liquids and induces amnesia, ketamine is listed as one ofClub-Disco-Party-PPT-Backgrounds-1000x750 the “date rape” drugs. It is categorized as “a club drug” since ketamine often is used recreationally in nightclubs, discos and raves. Club drugs typically include stimulants, hallucinogenics and psychedelic drugs.

First developed in 1962, the medical uses of ketamine include starting and maintaining anesthesia and for post-operative pain management for both human and veterinary use. At sub-anesthetic doses, however, ketamine produces a dissociative state.

The dissociation can be mild with a dream-like state and hallucinations that include a pleasant feeling of floating above one’s immediate environment. Or the dissociative state can be more pronounced with a complete sense of detachment from one’s physical body and the immediate environment—this is called de-personalization and de-realization, respectively. Ketamine has been associated with intentional use to experience near-death sensations.

At sufficiently high doses, abusers of ketamine may experience the “K-hole”, a state of extreme dissociation with agitation along with visual and auditory hallucinations within 10 minutes of injected or oral use and which lasts for one to two hours.

Overdoses without medical management can produce symptoms that progress to delirium, blood pressure spikes, heart arrhythmias, loss of muscle control, increased intracranial pressure and fatal respiratory issues.

Ketamine flashbacks have been reported for up to several weeks after dosing and prolonged use may cause sustained agitation, depression, impaired attention and learning abilities, as well as memory loss and periodic amnesia.

640px-R-ketamine-2D-skeletalLethal overdoses of ketamine are rare, but several high-profile deaths have been reported. Death from Ketamine usually involves single doses of over 150mg or when ketamine is mixed with a cocktail of alcohol and/or other club drugs. The mystery writer might invent an interesting murder scenario using this effective and potentially deadly drug.

There is no known antidote for a ketamine overdose. Medical management primarily includes ventilating the patient to support respiratory and circulatory function. Treatment of the associated agitation with depressant therapies are not advised since these drugs further depress respiratory function and lengthen the effects of, and recovery from, a ketamine overdose.

Recently, several studies indicate that IV ketamine treatments may become a 21st centuryketamine_10ml_bottle11 breakthrough in antidepressant therapy, particularly for major depressive disorder and bipolar depression. Intravenous dosing of IV ketamine has been demonstrated to produce similar anti-depressive results in six hours as compared to six weeks of therapy with standard oral antidepressant medications, and there appears to be a profound reduction in suicidal thoughts.

Although it’s too early to confirm this attribute of ketamine, future medicinal psychiatric practice may well include ketamine as a standard anti-suicidal medication.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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CYANIDE – A Classic Murder Weapon!

il_fullxfull.364865330_m5efIf you’ve been paying attention to my blogs over the last three weeks, you’ll notice that I’ve been writing about some classic poisons that have been used throughout history as murder weapons and which have been the lethal elements of choice in a variety of murder mysteries.

Today’s posting rounds out those recent blogs, as well as others that I’ve written in the past, to complete a collection of discussions on the world’s most famous poisons. The list includes aconite, arsenic, belladonna, botulinum toxin, dimethylmercury, elemental mercury, hemlock, polonium, tetrodotoxin and now cyanide. Hyperlinks are provided to those blogs as a reference.

Cyanide is a dramatic killer. As little as 100mg can be lethal, and it’s a rapidCYANIDE-e1325722958682-1 kill. Death can occur within a minute or up to 15 agonizing minutes, depending on the dose and the method of administration.

This poison was first used as a chemical weapon in the form of a gas during World War I and later in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. In the 1980s, it was used on the Kurdish inhabitants of northern Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

It became a famous method of murder in mystery novels (think Agatha Christie) and various spy novels in which captured spies commit suicide by swallowing cyanide pills.

Cyanide exists as a gas, a liquid or in solid form. Hydrogen cyanide liquid is extremely volatile, however, and boils off (vaporizes to a gas) at warm room temperatures (78.1˚F / 25.6˚C). The liquid is almost colorless to a transparent pale blue color. It gives off a bitter almond smell (a sweet cherry-like smell) that is so faint some may not even be able to detect the odor.

Solid cyanide exhibits in crystalline form, mainly as sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide, but the crystals are so fine that they appear to be a white powder.

Poisoning with cyanide may be a difficult crime to detect. The effects of cyanide poisoning exhibit as suffocation, with initial symptoms similar to the shortness of breath climbers or hikers experience at high altitudes.

This happens because cyanide prevents the cells of the body from being able to use oxygen. It inhibits an enzyme in the mitochondria of cells from doing its vital job of capturing oxygen and transporting it into cells.

The initial symptoms of cyanide poisoning include general weakness, shortness of breath, confusion, headache, dizziness, excessive sleepiness and bizarre behaviors. The symptoms progress to seizures, coma and eventual death.

An acute dose of cyanide will have a dramatic and rapid onset. It immediately affects the heart and the victim suddenly collapses, as in a heart attack. When the poison is circulated to the brain, seizures and coma precede death.

Chronic cyanide poisoning with low doses over a longer period of time, however, will exhibit these same symptoms, but the onset is much more gradual and is dose dependent.

Pink not Blue-1 (3) (1)_html_m79c723bbThe most notable telltale sign of cyanide poisoning is an unusually pink color to the victim’s skin (or even cherry-red) because oxygen remains in the blood rather than transferring to the body’s cells. The body is simply starved for oxygen. The victim may breathe rapidly and have an initial fast heartbeat that slows as oxygen starvation progresses.

Another unique sign of cyanide poisoning is that the victim’s breath mayimages-3 smell faintly like bitter almonds, but it may be so slight that this evidence might be overlooked.

Cyanide is present in many common substances found around the home: almonds, apple seeds, apricot kernels, some insecticides and pesticides, and it is plentiful in tobacco smoke.

A common accidental cyanide poisoning occurs with house fires. The victims are overcome by smoke inhalation while common household items like rubber, plastics and silk burn and create cyanide fumes.

So for an easy to use, difficult to detect, rapid and very effective poison, there is nothing sweeter than cyanide. But be sure to look for that telltale bitter almond smell on the victim’s breath and notice their rosy pink complexion.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

Posted in A How To Blog on Murder Weapons, About James J. Murray, About Murder, Acute Poisons, All About Murder, Blog Writers, Blogging, Bloodless Death Scene Writing, Chemical Poisons, Chronic Poisons, Cyanide and House Fires, Cyanide As A Poison, Cyanide in Household Foods, Cyanide in Household Items, Cyanide Is A Dramatic Killer, Cyanide Poisoning Symptoms, Cyanide Poisoning Telltale Signs, Dramatic Murder Weapons, Drug Poisoning, Drugs For Murder Plots, Ideas for Murder Scenes, Instruments of Death, Interesting Murder Weapons, Lethal Chemical Poisons, Lethal Substances Used For Murder, Murder Weapons, Murder With Cyanide, Plotting Interesting Murder Scenes, Poisons and Murder, The Science of Murder, Tools for Murder, Top Ten Most Famous Poisons, Uncategorized, Ways To Kill, Ways to Murder | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

BOTULISM – A Paralytic Nerve Toxin

Botulism, as an accidental illness, is rare these days. More sophisticated canning homecanningprocesses and better preservation of food products have prevented this serious neurotoxin from poisoning those in the modern world.

Intentional poisonings, however, are another story. The botulism toxin (called botulinum) is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It is said to be 10,000 times more deadly than cyanide, and it’s been estimated that a lethal human dose is in the range of two nanograms. That translates to two billionths of a gram (think of a paperclip as weighing one gram). Therefore, deadly doses are not even visible to the naked eye.

There are seven types of botulism, but only three MAIN types. These are:

Food-Borne Botulism – This type of illness usually exhibits symptoms within four to 36 hours after ingesting a contaminated food product. The symptoms include dry mouth,bilateral-ptosis-1 difficulty speaking and swallowing, weakness of the facial muscles, blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, as well as nausea and vomiting. Eventual respiratory shutdown and general muscle paralysis are the usual the causes of death. It’s good practice NOT to taste test food that may have gone bad.

Wound Botulism – This from of the disease is usually seen with those who inject drugs several times a day, as with people who use heroin. The symptoms and eventual lethal outcome are similar to food-borne botulism.

Infant Botulism – Babies who consume the spores of the bacteria will develop this form of the disease. The spores grow in infant intestines and release the neurotoxin. Honey can contain botulism spores and this is often a source of the disease for infants. Honey should not be fed to babies less than one year of age.

The botulism neurotoxin is produced mainly by Clostridium botulinum bacterium. The 22_zps98330277neurotoxin is so lethal that it is listed as a potential biological weapon by the United States Department of Defense. Deliberate food-borne botulism has the potential to poison many of the population and is considered a public health risk.

Food-borne botulism is the form often used as a murder weapon and which has the potential to be used as a bio-weapon. The cause of death is usually from suffocation due to respiratory muscle paralysis.

In 2001, a civilian bio-defense group issued a consensus statement regarding the dangers of botulism. The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) has classified this toxin as a Category A Agent because of its potential as a biological agent and the fact that it can be used as either an aerosolized or food-borne weapon.

Botulinum spores are extremely hardy entities. They survive boiling temperatures for over three hours. They are resistant to ultra violet light, irradiation and alcohols. These spores are said to survive in the dry state for over 30 years and can be reactivated by heating them, so storage for future weapon use is not a problem.

The good news is that the spores may be killed by chlorine disinfectants. And about twoSyringeVialMain years ago the FDA approved a botulism antitoxin drug, which is said to neutralize all seven known forms of the disease.

Survival depends on early initiation of treatment with the antitoxin, supportive medical care (such as breathing machine support and stomach pumping) and appropriate antibiotic use. But the recovery process can be lengthy, with assisted ventilation continuing for weeks and even months after the initial symptoms occur.

However, this same neurotoxin, when prepared in dilute concentrations, is used images-1commercially to treat medical and cosmetic conditions. It amazes me, and even boggles my mind, that a substance with such destructive potential can be harnessed and used in beneficial ways.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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BELLADONNA – It’s More Than A Beautiful Woman

Often some of the most deadly substances were once used for cosmetic purposes—that is,bald-head before their lethal qualities became obvious. An example of such commercial carelessness was thallium being marketed as a depilatory agent. It effectively removed unwanted hair, but it had a rather severe side effect of killing the person in the process.

Belladonna, known as Atropa belladonna and more commonly called deadly nightshade, is another interesting lethal substance that has been used as a cosmetic throughout history.

imagesIn Roman times, diluted eye drops of belladonna dilated the pupils, which was thought to make women more seductive. And if gently rubbed on the cheeks of the face, belladonna produced an interesting reddish blush. Although these practices have fallen out of favor because they cause dangerous increases in heart rates and possible blindness, there are still commercial products available that contain belladonna.

Deadly nightshade (belladonna) is considered one of the most toxic of plants in the Eastern Hemisphere. All parts of this botanical contain toxic alkaloids. While the roots are the most deadly part, poisonous alkaloids are present throughout the plant.

Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are the main toxins in the plant and these produce extreme delirium and hallucinations. I’ve written about these alkaloids in other blogs (here and here) since they are present in some modern pharmaceuticals used for motion sickness. They have the potential for a serious interaction with alcohol to produce temporary amnesia.

The berries of the belladonna plant create the greatest danger to children sincetumblr_mh2xpaXPZf1qjwd8go1_1280 they look as attractive as fruit and have a somewhat sweet taste. Two consumed berries can kill a child, and it takes about 10 to 20 berries to kill an adult (depending on a person’s body mass).

Adding the berries to food during preparation would make for an interesting method of murder for the mystery writer searching for a simple murder weapon. A more efficient use of this plant, however, would be to use the root or a leaf to murder. It’s been documented that a single leaf of the belladonna plant can be fatal to an adult.

Atropa_bella-donna1It’s interesting to note, however, that many animals (cattle, horses, rabbits, goats and sheep) can eat the plant without ill effects, but many domestic pets are vulnerable to its toxicity.

Belladonna has been used for centuries in herbal remedies as ail_fullxfull.365492870_gexq pain reliever, a muscle relaxant, for motion sickness and as an anti-inflammatory agent. The US Pharmacopeia still lists the methodology to prepare tincture of belladonna. In medical literature, its indications for use include being an antidote for certain poisonings (such as opium and chloroform) and the deadly insecticide parathion.

So, while belladonna might be considered “old school” for deadly poisons, this toxic botanical continues to be in the top 10 list of efficient murder weapons because of its effectiveness, its relative ease of availability and because it discreetly hides in food or drink.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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ARSENIC – The King of Poisons

Virtually imperceptible in the past when used as a poison, arsenic became known as ii_b_114c“The King of Poisons” because of its lethal potency and because it was undetectable. Then the Marsh test came into use in 1836!

From that point forward, arsenic trace evidence could be identified in liquids and in food. That’s when the chemical became famous as a dramatic murder weapon and was known as the perfect poison to be used in a murder mystery.

In convincing reports, several famous people have been murdered with arsenic: Napoleon Bonaparte, Simon Bolivar and King George the 3rd of England.

The progression to death is dependent on the dose, but the initial symptoms ofmh_capd_fig26-6.tif arsenic poisoning exhibit as headaches, confusion, diarrhea and drowsiness. Often white spots or lines appear on the person’s nails. This malady is called leukonychia, a harmless condition but a definite sign of arsenic poisoning.

As the poison concentrates in the body, the symptoms progress to acute vomiting, blood in the urine, hair loss, muscle cramps and a metallic taste in the mouth. The person will have difficulty swallowing, will begin to salivate excessively and have a pale/pasty white complexion.

But people have been poisoned with arsenic without malfeasance. Arsenic is thnaturally present in the world and high concentrations can be found in ground water that people drink. A 2007 study found that 137 million people in 70 countries exhibited mild symptoms of arsenic poisoning from grains, produce and normal drinking water.

There are reports that increased consumption of arsenic causes cancer and may heighten the risk of skin, stomach and kidney cancers; but the studies appear to be inconclusive, and they have not been substantiated in the laboratory.

Current commercial uses of arsenic include it as a preservative in lumber and animal hides, in pesticides, as an additive to lead in lead-acid batteries and in glass manufacturing, and as a gas to enhance the performance of semiconductors. Some of these commercial uses, however, have been outlawed in the United States.

Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelf

Ironically, there are medical benefits to arsenic. Some studies have shown the chemical to be useful in TREATING certain cancers, sending the cancer into remission. That’s an interesting fact since arsenic was previously thought to CAUSE cancer.

And in the past, women would consume a couple of drops of arsenic to enhance their beauty. It would cause the complexion to turn white and pale.

As I’ve seen on many occasions with chemicals, there are benefits and drawbacks with any potent element. But a murder mystery writer can’t go wrong when expertly exploiting the lethal qualities of this spectacular poison!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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