Mari Hannah, author of The Murder Wall [published by Pan Macmillan], takes time out to give us an in-depth look at how she set about creating a backstory for her main protagonist Kate Daniels and how deep she goes on creating character biographies. Why Character Biographies are so important to me is a fascinating and insightful piece from the debut author.

Mari Hannah

Mari Hannah © Alexander James

It stands to reason if characters were all the same, there would be no conflict between them and therefore no drama. This was drummed into me as I learned the craft of screenwriting before I became an author. There are some excellent books on writing available. They all contain sections on character development. One of the most helpful to me in the early days was by Steve Wetton: Writing TV Scripts in which he describes three distinct character types: machine, animal, child. A machine, he says, might be bright, intelligent, efficient and hardworking but lacking in emotion. An animal is more sensual, impulsive, with a lively interest in sex. A child, innocent and unsophisticated. This is by no means a full list. You can make up your own. For example, the Grim Reaper: the habitual complainer, the glass-half-empty type.

The Murder Wall – Book Review

The idea for a book comes first. But after that, I think it’s essential to nail your main characters by writing a biography for each of them. The more prominent a part they play in your story, the more involved the biography needs to be. They do take time to write but it’s time well spent in my opinion. Biographies are reference tools. You may never look at them again or you may use them at times when your character is in trouble or has big decisions to make. Wetton sums it up perfectly by saying ‘things mentioned in your character biography are like seeds waiting to flourish, so remember if you’re stuck for a way forward, don’t be afraid to look back.’ I totally agree.  Also, if you are writing a series, they’re the jumping off point to be added to as/when your character experiences major life changes, gets promoted, or simply decides to change their car.

So what type of character is my protagonist, Kate Daniels? We know she’s a Northumbria murder detective. But who is she really? Underneath, I mean. What motivates her? Below is the actual biography I wrote before I began writing The Murder Wall. In italics, I’ve written a little about the thinking that went into her backstory . . .

Kate is 35 when we meet her in The Murder Wall. Initially, I’d written her as a little older. But while writing a TV script as part of a BBC drama development scheme (based on the characters in my unfinished novel) it was suggested that she should be slightly younger so she had a shelf life should the series be commissioned and run on and on – as in the case of Colin Dexter’s Morse.

Kate is single, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Murder Investigation Team (MIT). Highly respected by her colleagues, she’s married to her job and has few friends outside of work. She has a strong sense of who she is and where she fits in the world. She loves Newcastle and the people in it. Her career began in 1992. After a short period in uniform, she was identified as the consummate professional; intuitive in nature with a cool head in a crisis – an ideal candidate for the CID. It wasn’t long before she made detective and joined the department. A few months later, she met a DI called Bright who took her under his wing, was instrumental in guiding her to make the right career choices. Her path mirrored his own, so much so she almost felt like his shadow. Wherever he had gone, she had gone too – drugs squad, fraud squad, crime squad – eventually making DI herself at the young age of 28, DCI four years later.

Playing her cards very close to her chest, Kate will do anything to get the job done. She’s fiercely protective of her team and those she cares about. Within MIT, there’s a real sense of being part of one big family. That includes falling out on occasions and making up afterwards. When the team are on a case, there is no other feeling like it. When they do well, they have something to smile about. When they don’t, they up their game.

A little edgy and intense, Kate likes to think of herself as focused but is aware that others might view her as obsessive on occasions. She’s questioning of authority and has a love/hate relationship with Bright who is now a Detective Superintendent and her immediate boss at MIT. Behind closed doors, she’s able to speak frankly to him, although there is still a line over which she may not cross. One day she intends to step into his formidable shoes.

Of course, as a main character, Bright has a biography of his own, albeit rather different from how he appears in the finished book. He was more cranky when I first created him, schizophrenic even, and based on an angry man I knew from real life. I toned him down on the advice of an editor who was kind enough to give me notes along the way. So, I hear you say, what’s the point of writing a biography if you change it afterwards? Good question. Had the editor I mentioned been a lone voice, I may well have discounted her comments and left well alone. But my agent had also mentioned inconsistencies in the character and, in my experience, it pays not to ignore advice from TWO trusted sources. And the book is better for having accepted that this particular character was less than sympathetic. Just like synopses, story outlines and treatments, biographies are not set in stone. They may change in the writing and that’s okay. It pays not to be too prescriptive.

Back to Kate . . .

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah Born in May 1974 to Ed and Elizabeth Daniels (now deceased) Kate was brought up in a small village and attended a local Catholic School. Inquisitive by nature, she has bags of enthusiasm and a rebellious streak. She’s a leader, not a follower. Above all, she’s resilient; no matter what life throws at her, she just keeps going. She’s the Jack Bauer of MIT. Detective Sergeant Hank Gormley is her Chloe . . . always there for her and right on the ball.

It was always my intention for Kate to be a lonely character with few friends and colleagues to turn to in a crisis. That was my way of upping the ante, causing her to dig deep as I placed obstacle after obstacle in her way. Having lost her mother, I then had to come with a plausible explanation as to why she and her father didn’t get along. In my view, it had to be something to do with her upbringing in the north east where the book is set, a link from her past. I came up with the perfect solution as I delved further back in her life. See below …

As a girl, Kate idolised her father who gave her a strong perspective on right and wrong. He was an affectionate, hard-working, proud man, with a great sense of humour. But when she was ten, things changed at home. She remembers he stayed home a lot . . . seven years on, he was a broken man, his emotions still raw from the miners’ strike. Memories of the bitter and bloody confrontation with the police on the picket lines had not diminished. When Kate left school with above average grades and a burning ambition to join the police, he took her choice of profession as a betrayal – refused to give her his blessing. Their relationship has been strained ever since. There is another reason they don’t get on but it would be a spoiler to reveal what it is before people have the chance to read the book so I’m keeping shtum.

Her mother’s death in 2006 affected Kate greatly. They had grown very close before Elizabeth passed away, another bone of contention between Kate and her father. Ed Daniels felt pushed out, though the truth of the matter was he was just too traumatised to deal with the situation. Kate turned her back on religion following her mother’s death and has never said why. The reason is revealed in The Murder Wall.  You’ll have to read it to find out what it is.

A highly organised individual, Kate hates chaos in any form. She fears being alone and craves the special kind of relationship her parents enjoyed. She’s her own worst enemy in achieving this, having never managed to balance home/work life successfully. Kate misses her father’s wisdom and is desperate for his approval. She regrets that the saying ‘time heals’ doesn’t seem to apply in her family. She also misses the intimacy of a former relationship and hasn’t seen anyone since it ended. Instead, she’s put all her efforts into her career. Recognise the machine? Kate is an intensely private person and ambitious to a fault, both of which play a big part in The Murder Wall plot.

And then there’s the contradiction: loyalty is Kate’s greatest strength but it’s also her Achilles heel.  Of all her character traits, this is perhaps the most relevant, divided loyalty being the central theme of The Murder Wall. It’s what pulls her apart emotionally, threatening the career she’s so keen to protect.

It’s important for any writer to make their characters real and believable. No one wants to read about stereotypes. Main characters – good or evil – have to be distinctive, interesting enough to carry a book, a series, a TV production or feature film. I’ve lived with Kate for such a long time. She’s as real to me as any member of my family. I care about her, I get cross with her, but I’m immensely proud of her too. She’s the heroine who overcomes adversity in solving difficult cases, the one who restores the status quo. I hope you grow to like her as much as I do. She was once called Grace by the way . . . but that’s another story.

To find out more why not check out Mari Hannah on twitter or visit her website.

Published by Pan Macmillan, The Murder Wall is available in Paperback & Kindle formats.

458 Pages

  • ISBN-10: 0330539930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330539937
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