Writing characters that matter

Cover of When No One is Watching
Book Cover

Some characters in books make a lasting impression. Whether writing or reading we want characters that are memorable in a good way, an authentic way. Perhaps even a character we can learn from. I recently came across a character that stood out from the very beginning.

Authenticity

Sydney Green is the protagonist of Alyssa Cole’s latest thriller, When No One is Watching. She’s a recently divorced, moved-back-home, 30-year-old, Black woman from Brooklyn. From the beginning of her story there is tension – and this is BEFORE the ‘thriller’ part begins. At the same time, no part of her life feels added to magically ‘create a character’, certainly none were added to tick a box to ‘make her more interesting’.

All part of a whole

Sydney feels like a real person, facing a real person’s obstacles: an ailing mother, recovery from a bad divorce, the uneasiness combined with happiness of moving back home to a neighborhood filled with pleasant childhood memories. It is hard to tell which part of her life will push her into the main plot of the story (it’s a thriller, so something bad is going to happen!). What makes Sydney compelling is that each part of her character is an essential part of the story. Nothing is added ‘for interest’.

Walking in her shoes

As we get to know Sydney, she lets us walk a few steps in her shoes as a Black woman returning to a neighborhood where she used to know everyone. Things have changed, some new neighbors, some new businesses, yet it’s still hers. Except for . . . what might be politely called micro-aggressions, but are blatantly racist slights and sometimes physical threats. These actions are systemic and woven into her daily life. They feel like ‘life’ not plot. I was struck by the fact that in my life these would have already been Thriller Plot writ large, while in Sydney’s they were the background of normalcy.

The counterpoint to a protagonist

Sydney has a counterpoint to her point of view in Theo, a white guy of a similar age facing his own overwhelming problems. When partnered with Sydney we see how his well-intentioned gestures can be a threat. For example, when he intervenes in a minor interaction it may escalate the situation for her in a way she wants to avoid. Character is more than just a list of attributes it is the character.

Reading about Sydney Green’s acclimation to her uprooted life planted the seeds for what would come as the thriller part of the novel unfolded. But even before that, I was frightened for Sydney, frightened for her everyday life in her lovely neighborhood because of what being Black meant to her. Turns out, I was right to be worried, but then again, I knew it was a thriller.

Are there Characters that have made you think beyond their storyline? Characters that have stayed with you long after the book was closed? Please share with us on Facebook or Twitter.

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