Character Clues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I’ve never really thought about it until now, but my friends are very, very specific whenever we set times to meet.

I’ll arrange to pick up a friend for lunch or to volunteer at our kids’ school. “Why don’t you come by at 9:35?” they’ll suggest. Or, “Elizabeth, I’ll be ready at 11:50.”

A friend pointed this out recently, “You know no one else gets precise instructions like that.” I didn’t understand. She said, “No one else is told the exact minute to meet. Most people will say something on the hour or the half-hour. Maybe on the quarter hour. The only reason people tell you that is because you’ll be there at exactly that time. You’re never early or late. If you were late, I’d call the cops because I’d know something horrible had happened to you.”

So, if I were a character (and I’m wondering now if maybe I am), a reader could possibly make some assumptions about me. Some might be right and some might be wrong.

Someone might conclude that I’m a little Type A. They might conclude that I keep an eye on the clock. Maybe they’d just conclude that I’m punctual (although apparently I take it a little too far.)

Of course I’m all about clues, since I’m a mystery writer. The fun thing about character clues is that the reader gets to figure things out for themselves. Editors love showing—and it’s a great way to show.

Frequently, when I think about character clues, I’m using clues that are physical pointers. In other words, I’d have something like a character who opens his car door and a bunch of papers and wrappers fall out. Easy to make assumptions about him, right?

But if I bring in another character, I can show that character’s demeanor when dealing with the protagonist—and add dialogue clues to hint at character traits and the characters’ relationship with each other .

Maybe you have a character that you want to represent as someone who talks too much. This could easily be expressed by interruptions from a second character or their signs of impatience. Or of them putting off a phone call with the character. Much better than pages and pages of chatty dialogue to prove the point.

Since I’m a mystery writer, I might also be interested in planting the wrong impression of a character. I might want to mislead the reader. (Other novelists might want to do the same thing, for different reasons.) Maybe the character is unnaturally chatty because they’re nervous. Maybe the second character is just an impatient person who interrupts—maybe they’re not making a point about the character’s loquaciousness at all.

How do you handle character clues?

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17 thoughts on “Character Clues

  1. I’m not a mystery writer, but I’ve studied a lot of psychology/ sociology and so I add quite a bit of traits into my characters. I always like something unique – especially with my antagonists. I like to make the reader stop, even for just a second, and say “wait, that could be me.”

    No matter the genre, or the character role, I think readers like to identify with some one or something in a story.


  2. Elizabeth – Character clues really are important ways to show, not tell. When I write characters, I to let the way they act give the reader clues to their personalities. For instance, I’ll have a restless character tap pencils, a self-absorbed character use nothing but the pronoun, “I,” and so on. Readers don’t want a steady diet of “He was nervous,””She was selfish,” or “They were sloppy.”

  3. Character clues I use can be things like a hint of special clothing and physical appearance (piercing and tattoos like Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s books), or particular words and phrases used … and if I say I’ll be there at 10, it probably means I’ll show up around 11:15. It’s the academic quarter >:D

    Cold As Heaven

  4. I like that you stressed slipping the character clues in sporadically as opposed to stopping the story to dump a bunch of details.

    It is always fun to go against the expected, and certainly against stereotype when it comes to character clues. I tried to do that with the central characters of Open Season, and I think it made the characters stronger and certainly more memorable.

  5. Never thought of little clues that way, but I guess I do use them. And what’s wrong with being punctual? I hate it when people are late.

  6. Clues about the characters are just as important as clues about the mystery, aren’t they? I try to remember none of them are perfect, even if they might wish they are. If a character is only happy arriving on time, I might see what happens when they forget their watch.

  7. I try to show character traits through their own actions and interactions with others.

    I hate being late, also, which means I usually end up arriving too early.

  8. Great post. I love having characters get things wrong, especially if the reader can see that they might have the wrong impression.

    I also like using body language and physical clues of a character’s emotional state that don’t match up with what they might be saying or thinking.

  9. I skimmed some chapters of “The Halloween Murderer” today, and I can see I use clothes quite a bit. Rhapsody´s sensible friend wears a no-nonsense cardigan while the artisty one wears a shawl with fringes which gets into the pools of beer her sister has spilled etc.

  10. I really like reading about characters who have traits like me that I know are often misread. For instance, I am often blunt so people sometimes take that as unfriendly. So, if I see really blunt characters I know that I am *supposed* to read it as rude / unfriendly but that it might turn out differently (and that’s the exciting part of reading mysteries!). (Way too complicated?” ;0)

  11. This could be a series of five or six posts easily. Where to begin. Conflicting personalities are a great starting place. I remember stopping by on my Blog Book Tour last November discussing food and wine.

    “Nicky is a health food nut, Staci, a junk food junkie. Staci’s basic food groups consist of refined sugar, processed carbs, and coffee. Nicky won’t touch any of the three. Minor conflict is introduced just sitting down to eat together.”

    Placing polar opposities at the same table opens the door for opportunity to place character clues that can play out as the book and the characters develop. Great post. I’ll check back to see what others have to say.

  12. *falls over* Oh, that’s funny your friends have worked that out about you–yes, you are definitely a character. Me? I’m alway early… first one there, last one to leave. It’s my FOMS. I love posts like this, as you get my thoughts going on all these ticks I want to give my characters…

  13. Donna–Which is a very good idea. It’s something I’ve thought a bit about, too–what if the reader doesn’t *share* the character’s traits. Is that going to be off-putting to a reader? But then I think about characters like Monk and hardly *anyone* is similar to him. But I think people relate to him because everybody’s got *something* that they’re particular about.

    Cold As Heaven–You travel so much, that we’ll just say you’re permanently in a different time zone from everyone else. :)
    And, good point about character dress. That’s also another good way to possibly misdirect. Sometimes I look like a disaster and….well, maybe I’m a disaster. But usually it’s because I’ve been doing yardwork or housework and haven’t had time to change. But if I were meeting someone for the first *time* like that–I can only imagine what they’d think if I was all smudged with dirt and dust.

    Alex–Absolutely *nothing* wrong with being punctual! (I *would* say that, wouldn’t I?) :)

    Margot–Actions do speak louder than words!

    Jane–That’s the beauty of arriving exactly on time! I think I’ve turned it into an art form. If I arrive to pick someone up too early, they’re never ready. If I get to a party too early, it makes me feel self-conscious and I end up helping the hostess set up. I used to really *like* early, but not on-time makes me happy. :)

    Janice–Very good point! So we can tell that their actions or body language is counteracting what they’re saying.

    Karen–Thanks so much! I love having you visit. :)

    Maryann–Oh definitely–dumps of any kind just totally lose me as a reader.

    Professor Stacy –See, you’re one of those sophisticated mystery readers that we all have to be careful about! I try to think about readers who see through that wool I’ve tried to drape. :)

    Elspeth–They would be sweating like crazy. :)

    Stephen–Oh, so many opportunities for conflict when you’ve got characters with different goals and interests!

    Hart–I love writing down the odd habits and traits of people I know. :) Particularly if they drive me crazy!

    Dorte–Good idea, since we pick out our clothes and they’re frequently a reflection of our personalities.

  14. Well, now I have to go back through my WIP and take a harder look at what character clues I’ve used and how effective they are. Thanks for the good post.

  15. I would say you are definitely Type A- you would not get a quarter as much accomplished as you actually do, if you did not arrange to meet people at 11:50, and did.

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