by Kathleen Ernst
I’m grateful to all of Poe’s Deadly Daughters for allowing me to be a guest today. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a drawing for one free book. The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles. Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!
I enjoy a good stand-alone as much as anyone…but my greatest reading pleasure comes from discovering a wonderful series. And the best part about that is getting to know the protagonist. I want to go for a long ride; to see her grow and change not only within a single book, but over the arc of the series. I want to settle in and spend time with characters I truly care about.
Old World Murder is the first book in my new adult series, and I hope readers will feel that way about protagonist Chloe Ellefson.
My previous novels have been for teens and kids, but the challenge remains the same. Over the years, as both a writer and a reader, I’ve distilled what I consider the most important aspects of a compelling main character into three main traits.
1. Compelling protagonists have inner strength. Call it spunk, call it sass, call it spirit—great characters have it. It may be buried deep inside, but it has to be there. The characters I care most about are people I can admire, even if deeply flawed. And I don’t want to wait too long to find evidence of it. Who wants to go on a long ride with a total wimp?
Chloe Ellefson is starting a new job as curator of collections at a large historic site when Old World Murder opens. Although there are hints that she’s dealing with a troubled past on page one, we also see her stand up to an overbearing co-worker in the first chapter. Yes, she’s in some emotional pain—but that doesn’t mean she’s going to be pushed around.
2. Compelling protagonists are also vulnerable. I will admire a character who shows supreme strength every day, every hour. I probably won’t care about her on a personal level, though, because I can’t relate to her. When I discover what makes a character vulnerable, I keep reading to make sure she’s OK in the end.
I thought a lot about Chloe’s backstory as I developed Old World Murder. The full story is revealed gradually, but when the book opens she is recovering from a bad breakup, a lost job, and a bout of clinical depression. And that raises the stakes as troubles and threats begin to multiply.
3. Compelling protagonists want or need something, badly. Often this personal, inner plotline works against the external events of the mystery investigation. The mounting obstacles that get between the character and her goals keep me turning pages.
In Old World Murder, Chloe’s new job at the historic site gives her an opportunity to make a fresh start both personally and professionally. On her first day on the job, Chloe meets an elderly woman who begs her to find a valuable family artifact. The woman dies minutes later, but when Chloe tries to discover the whereabouts of the missing object, the search quickly turns dangerous. And when Chloe’s new boss orders her to stop looking, she may have to choose between finding the truth and keeping the job she so desperately needs.
How does that list compare with your own? I’d love to hear what traits you find important!
Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink). She has also written eight mysteries for young readers. Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. For more information see her website, http://www.kathleenernst.com, or her blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com.