Book Beat Babes

Book Beat Babes

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Karen McCullough, On How to Add Depth to Characters

I'm happy to welcome my guest, award winning, multi-published author, Karen McCullough, to Book Beat Babes, with some helpful advice for us. Morgan Mandel

Karen McCullough with grandson
Karen McCullough is a web designer, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. 

Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years. 

Her most recent release is the ebook version of A Gift for Murder, originally published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage and mass market paperback by Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries. She hopes someday to be able to create a character as vivid and riveting as Randall Matthews.

Now, let's see what advice Karen offers us

Character Contradictions Add Depth

I recently re-read a Georgette Heyer cozy mystery, Behold, Here’s Poison.  Heyer isn’t really a master of complex plotting although the story does contain one of the most clever murder weapons ever.

I’m not going to tell you what it is. Read the book and see if you can figure it out. I mention that because there are going to be some other *spoilers* for the story here. It’s necessary, in order to talk about what makes the story rise above many others.

It’s actually just a small spoiler. I’m not going to tell you who the murderer is, just tell you that most obvious suspect isn’t the one.

Heyer’s strength is in the characters that people her stories. Her mysteries often have large casts, but each is individual enough to keep them from merging into an undifferentiated mass of suspects (something I struggle with myself as an author).

But Behold, Here’s Poison has one character so riveting you can’t help but be utterly fascinated by him. He’s not particularly likable, but he’s certainly attractive. Read the reviews of this book on Amazon and he is mentioned a number of times by the reviewers.

Randall Matthews emerges as one of the main characters in the story though we don’t meet him until the third or fourth chapter. Because he’s the main heir of the murder victim he’s also a chief suspect in the crime.
Initially it’s easy to root for him as the villain, because he’s haughty, arrogant, disdainful, uncaring, and downright nasty. His dialogue consists mostly of rude and cutting remarks, and he disparages anyone. However, he’s always polite about it and seems not to take offense when others react badly to his digs.

As the story continues, we, the readers, discover that there’s much more to Randall than shows on the surface. We come to see that he’s a remarkably intelligent and clear-sighted man. Most of his nasty cutting remarks are the unvarnished truth and often are attempts to make a point or offer a sort of back-handed guidance to the recipient.

To help us glimpse the truth, Heyer offers the point of view of another character who doesn’t really like him, but has a better understanding than the rest of the family. She calls him an “amiable snake.” And like what we see of Randall himself, it’s the truth, but not the entire truth.

It becomes clearer, too, that despite his appearance of not caring about the family who mostly despise him, he’s working very hard to protect them, even at the cost of making himself look more guilty.

Finally, the reader cheers when the one person he cares about most finally recognizes what he’s been doing and responds to it. But the haughtiness and arrogance remain. He’s just as arrogant and rude and cutting as he was at the beginning. He’d be hell to live with, but it certainly wouldn’t be boring. His faults are real, but easier to forgive when we know what’s behind it.

Re-reading this story has reminded me, as a writer myself, of what a challenge it is to create a memorable character, and how wonderful it is when you succeed.
Heyer drops hints right from the start that there’s more to Randall than just a bilious disposition. She offers the clues simply by reporting very accurately what he says, how he says it, and the actual events that provoke his comments. She depends on the reader to put things together rather than just dangling the truth out very obviously.

The contradictions make Randall a riveting character and finding what’s below the surface is one of the chief pleasures of reading the book. 

The challenge to an author is great, but the rewards are even greater. Fascinating characters are what draw a reader into a book and what will keep them coming back for more.

About A Gift for Murder by Karen McCullough

For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington, D.C. Commerce & Market Show Center. But the Gifts and Home Decorations trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is being worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t. The discovery tips throws 
Heather’s life—personal and professional—into havoc.
The police suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gottenglimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive. Questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers, but if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit will remain free to kill again.

Her only help comes from an exhibitor with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends. To solve the mystery, she will havehas to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.

Please leave a comment to welcome Karen McCullough to Book Beat Babes. 


  1. Welcome to Book Beat Babes, Karen. Thanks so much for your great examples about character depth.

  2. Great article. A Gift For Murder is in my TBR pile. Now I'll have to add Behold, Here's Poison. :-) Thanks for the insight.

  3. Thanks for your explanation of adding depth to characters. It's something we probably don't think enough about. Some authors can do it naturally, others just continue to write "flat" characters without a thought. Now I know one good reason why I download and delete so man books from Amazon. Since I know this is a very bad habit, I pay only for books by authors I know will come through for me. I feel as though I found a pot of gold when I do download a freebie and fall in love with the characters. Plot is of the essence, but truly, the characters make the story. I sell print here in town to a very nice list of readers. I adore these people, because they not only buy my print editions, they give me feedback! And since they buy the next one, I do know they like my characters. And I'm happy to meet you, Karen--and oh, my who is that little sweetheart you're holding?

  4. Morgan, thank you for having me here as a guest!
    Elysa: Thanks for the comments. I do recommend Behold, Here's Poison, because authors can learn so much from the way Heyer creates and reveals characters.
    Celia: I wish I were one of those authors who can write great characters without trying! But re-reading Heyer (after many, many years of those books sitting on my shelves and then stuff in the attic), I'm realizing just how important it is to really work on how you present them. I totally agree about finding a book like that... It's rare, but it does make you feel like you've won the lottery when you find them. The little guy on my lap is my two-year-old grandson. I'm not particularly photogenic so I have very few pictures of myself I actually like, but I really do like that one. Maybe because the baby distracts attention from me?

  5. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for being with us here at Book Beat Babes. Great post. I think contradictions in characters make them seem more real and more human. After all, in real life, people tend to exhibit contradictions all the time. Very few people are truly one-dimensional.

  6. What an insightful post. I haven't read her books but I love the characters that writers create. They are the reason I read.

    I used to visit Greensboro every year for over 20 years. It's a beautiful town. I hope you aren't getting any of the ice and snow that they are talking about.

  7. I loved all of Georgette Heyer's books, and I read every single one of them. I might have to read them again. Wonderful post, Karen.

  8. Thank you for all the comments! I appreciate it. Melissa -- we have six inches of snow on the ground and it's sleeting now. Praying the power doesn't go out.

  9. Welcome Karen, to BBB ~
    Thanks for the insights to meaningful characters. I love using conflicted characters in my books.

  10. Karen,
    Enjoyed your post. I see it's time to read Georgette Heyer once again. I haven't in years.