Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Write Brain Report: Elementary, My Dear Writer-Criminal Profiling by Cathy Dilts

The July PPW Write Brain challenged my thinking about character development. I have heard the talks and read the books on archetypes, a theory which seems a tad lofty for some of my stories. Tuesday evening, author Julie Kazimer (aka j. a. kazimer) presented a new idea: using criminal profiling techniques to develop your characters and dialogue.

Julie has a Master’s degree in forensic psychology, and has worked as a private investigator. She has experience with real-world profiling.  

What is the purpose of criminal profiling? Julie told the audience that this technique allows crime scene investigators to narrow the suspect pool. Profilers gather clues from crime scene reports, autopsy reports, and other sources to create a generalized description of the suspect.

She opened her talk with a criminal investigation. A princess is murdered. A blue bird and a pig driving a taxi are near the scene. What would we tell the police, in order for them to narrow their investigation?

The audience eagerly examined the clues. The bird was a favored suspect. The scenarios people developed were wildly different, but clearly based on the bird’s profile. Was the bird a spurned lover? Did the clues indicate a menopausal bird driven over the edge by the relentlessly cheerful princess? Maybe the bird was a hired killer. Who the bird is drove what it did, and why.

That’s all well and fine, but what does that have to do with writing fiction?

According to Julie, criminal profiling allows the writer to reveal truths about characters outside of dialogue, and to interact with the reader. You have undoubtedly been reading a novel, and hit a slow spot. You get bored with the story. Julie says this is because the writer is not interacting with you as a reader. Interesting idea, but how does this concept solve the problem?

“Keep ‘Em Guessing.” Let your reader play Watson to your Sherlock Holmes. We think of clues as bits of evidence a reader must ferret out in order to solve a crime. Julie suggested we set up clues to character intent as well, including body language such as shifty eyes. These clues help you to show what your characters are thinking and feeling, instead of simply telling the reader. They reveal the truth to the reader in spite of the lies your characters may be telling others, or themselves.

What better way to teach a new concept than to make your audience put it to use? Julie gave us a writing prompt, and challenged us to write a paragraph of dialogue showing trust, joy, or anticipation. Can you convey emotions through dialogue? Showing, not telling? The results were clever bits of writing involving characters in various circumstances, and not a “she was happy” in the bunch. It all came through dialogue.

The next prompt involved writing an exchange of dialogue where what’s being said is in conflict with what one character really feels. Used another way, I’ve heard this technique called the “unreliable narrator.” The character is saying one thing, but clearly the reality is something else entirely.

“Make the reader feel smart,” Julie said. “Make them feel stupid. Make them feel something.” These exercises let us play with the idea of interacting with the reader.

What has all this got to do with criminal profiling? Julie’s final exercise was to create profiles for two brand new characters, and then write a scene between them that reveals an emotion through their actions.

People read their exercises. One involved a lover attempting to cover up his unfaithfulness. Another used a cat playing coy to get what she wanted. Several writers left the audience eager to hear more, based on a half page of hasty scribbling. 

The relationship was obvious. The way the characters interacted depended upon the profiles writers created for them. Once you know who your characters are, their actions will show the reader much more than you, the writer, can tell.

Julie Kazimer delivered a fun Write Brain evening with new angles on character and dialogue. And did I mention she gave us candy and prizes?

About the Writer: Cathy Dilts is an assistant editor for the PPW blog. She writes cozy murder mystery and inspirational fiction, and has recently begun writing short stories because they’re easier to fit in to her busy schedule. Cathy’s publication experience is similar to fishing – getting lots of nibbles on the line, but no bites yet.

In her spare time, she enjoys raised bed gardening, which her husband claims look the perfect size for burying bodies, while reminding her that you can’t get rid of the bones.

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