How to build characters

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

How to build characters is a key element of writing a novel.  In Chapter 3 of “Blood Summit” we begin to fill in the canvas a little.

Chapter 1 of my Berlin thriller “Blood Summit” addresses how to open a novel.  Chapter 2 of “Blood Summit” explores Point of View.  is seen from the Point of View of Helen Gale, the protagonist of the thriller

Now, in chapter 3, let’s take a look at how to build characters, and how to introduce them into the action.

How to build characters: Potsdamer Platz, Berlin

How to build characters: Potsdamer Platz.  Why does Helen Gale, the protagonist, live in such a soulless place?  (photo RP)

Chapter 3 develops the conflict between Helen Gale and her boss, Jason Short, and introduces several new characters.  These include

Ram Kuresh: the only avowedly gay member of the Secret Intelligence Service Office in Berlin.

Blore Harl: Helen Gale’s counterpart at the US Embassy, also responsible for the security of the Children’s Summit.  Does he worry too much, or is he right to worry?

Dieter Kremp: deputy head of the Summit Security Unit and Helen’s lover – a macho package of anger, “exquisite, toned musculature” and chauvinism.  Dieter’s own POV will be introduced in Chapter 4 – in this chapter we hear about his from other’s point of view – an example of how to build characters.  Helen later reflects: “Dieter was outstanding at what the management manuals called task – getting the job done.  But when it came to maintenance of a relationship – empathy, sensitivity and listening – he scored zero across the board.”

Read on and see how we begin to build the characters in this chapter.  You can read all the excerpts published on this blog in one place at my new Blood Summit page.

How to build characters: BLOOD SUMMIT CHAPTER 3

Jason Short ran across the ambassador’s office and stood over Leonard Lennox.

‘Are you all right, sir?’

‘Of course he’s not all right,’ Helen said. ‘We must stop the bleeding.’ She grabbed a cloth from under a vase of flowers on a side-table, folded it, and pressed it against the wound.

‘Can you hold that in place?’

The ambassador nodded. ‘Yes.’

Helen dialled a number. ‘Ram? The ambo’s injured. Come.’

‘It wasn’t a big bomb,’ Sir Leonard Lennox said. ‘The bandit glass is intact. Maybe a bit of shrapnel hit me.’

A small bomb. The ambassador had a point. They wouldn’t be standing here if a car bomb had exploded. Yet who would attack a building with a hand-carried bomb in the street outside? It made no sense. And what about the protest?

‘My God,’ she said. ‘The demonstrators!’

‘At least they’ve stopped throwing stones.’ Short smirked.

‘We must evacuate the building,’ Helen said. ‘And call London.’

‘I’ll phone,’ Short said.

Ram Kuresh bustled into the room, a red plastic medical kit in his hand. He looked at the ambassador.

‘Out of the way, Mr Short,’ he said. ‘This is a job for trained hands.’ The first-aider radiated calm. He turned to the Leonard Lennox. ‘You poor thing. Let me look at that.’

The Tannoy crackled into life. ‘This is Eric Taylor, chief security officer. A bomb has exploded outside the embassy. Please leave the building and assemble in the courtyard.’

‘Probably a bomb there too, primed to go off in five minutes.’ Colour returned to Short’s cheeks. He straightened his silk tie. ‘What does Helen think? Our Post Security Officer? Should we go out?’

Helen paused a beat. She’d always been fond of Balfour’s dictum that nothing mattered very much and few things mattered at all. But this was different.

‘The courtyard is secure,’ she said. ‘Eric knows best.’ She turned to Ram. ‘What’s happening in the annex?’

‘Our rooms are clear.’ Ram continued to fuss over bandages. ‘A few people stopped to put their papers away, I’m afraid.’ The SIS office, of which he was the only avowedly gay member, was in a self-contained suite of rooms behind an old-fashioned Cambridge door. To ask the spooks to leave their papers out would be like telling the Pope to skip mass.

‘Will the ambassador make it down the stairs?’

‘He will. With luck, it is only a flesh wound, but we must get it checked. Heads bleed like crazy.’

Helen looked at Short, who had not moved. ‘Are you calling London?’

‘Helen. Try to stay calm.’ Short took out a phone and peered at the screen as if trying to recall its purpose. ‘I’m taking care of it.’

Leaving Short to report the bomb made Helen uneasy. She left the room and descended the grand staircase to the exit.

The courtyard of the embassy formed a grey granite chasm used as a turning circle for visiting vehicles. Bedraggled embassy staff filled the space, clustering around floor wardens in the rain. Helen moved among them, checking everyone was accounted for.

Her phone rang.

‘Helen. Blore here. Are you all OK?’

‘Yes, all good thanks. But wide awake. Did you hear it?’

‘Loud and clear.’ The US embassy, where Blore Harl worked, stood around the corner. ‘I guess this confirms the warnings.’ He meant the secret intelligence they had both seen.

‘But a crowded street is a soft target,’ Helen said. ‘No-one’s allowed within half a mile of the Reichstag.’

‘Washington won’t like it.’

‘Let’s hope they cancel the bloody Children’s Summit.’ Helen wiped rain off her face. ‘Do you think it’s even possible to invest more effort for less results?’

‘Said a British embassy spokeswoman.’

‘Don’t get me started.’

‘I guess the Secret Service will decide,’ the American said. ‘Hey, I’ll get out your hair. See you on the security tour tomorrow.’

Helen rang off and moved towards the street. Something nagged her. What had she been about to do when the bomb went off? Phone Dieter. The thought filled her with foreboding. But she had to call him.

The deputy head of the Summit Security Unit was expecting her.

‘I suppose this means you want even more security for the Reichstag?’ When Dieter Kremp grew angry, his German became more clipped, more official.

‘I’m fine, Dieter, thanks for asking. No-one seriously injured.’

‘For months, you and your American friends have tried to frighten us with warnings about terrorists. Now there is a bomb. You must be happy.’

‘Can you send someone over? The Wilhelmstrasse’s a mess.’

‘Police, medics and a forensic team should all be there. And someone from the SSU. Are they not?’

‘I don’t know. I’m in the embassy.’

‘Who is the embassy contact point?’

Helen paused. ‘Better be me. Jason likes everything to go through him. But this is important.’

‘Is he still driving you insane?’

‘If he would lay off me, I could ignore him. But he’s obsessed with Bangkok.’

‘I, too am obsessed. Are you free tonight?’

The change of tack caught Helen off guard. ‘No idea. It’s the first time we’ve had a bomb the day before a summit.’ She grinned in the darkness. ‘But I have wine in the fridge.’

‘When will you be home?’

‘God knows. Ten. Maybe eleven.’

‘Sweet dreams.’ Dieter rang off.

Eric Taylor loomed out of the rain. The locally-engaged ex-squaddie was elderly, with a refreshing indifference to hierarchies. He held up a hand.

‘Hold it, Helen. Where are you going?’

‘The street. People may be injured.’

‘There’s a few down, aye.’ Eric inclined his close-cropped head towards her. ‘All on the other side of the road. Bloody odd way to blow up an embassy.’

‘Any ambulances?’

Eric bent his head closer still. ‘They can’t get past the security bollards.’

‘I’ve done a first-aid course. I could help.’

‘Do you think it’s safe to go out?’

‘We can’t just watch. Will you open the gate?’

‘What if I won’t?’

‘I’ll climb over the top. It’ll look weird on the evening news.’

‘OK.’ The security officer nodded. ‘But I’m shutting it behind you.’

The bomb had not harmed the front guard desk, with its reinforced concrete pedestal and 35-millimetre bullet-resistant glass. Helen waited as Eric opened the ram-resistant steel gates enough for her to slip through. The barrier slammed shut behind her.

Outside, bedlam reigned. Officers of the Bundespolizei, the Federal Police, sealed off the street, submachine guns slung over their shoulders. A host of ambulances, police cars and fire engines had congregated beyond the traffic control bollards. Teams of orange-jacketed paramedics clustered around the epicentre of the blast. A film crew from Wild TV had penetrated the cordon to film a victim. A man in the charcoal-grey uniform of the Summit Security Unit stood talking on the phone.

Helen crossed the road towards the TV crew. A boy no more than five or six years old lay silent on the ground. The boy’s face was white with shock. A medic bandaged his leg. Helen crouched down alongside him.

‘My knee hurts,’ the boy said.

‘The doctor will help you.’

‘I am thirsty.’ His voice cracked. ‘Something to drink.’

The film crew seemed oblivious to what the boy was saying. The medic had his hands full of dressings. Helen rose.

‘I’ll fetch water,’ she said. ‘Hold on.’

She ran back to the embassy. Inside, Eric Taylor saw her and opened the gate.

‘Water,’ Helen said. ‘Quickly.’

‘In the back, love.’ The security officer jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘Glasses in the top cupboard.’

She had never before seen the kitchenette that led off the security booth. It seemed to take ages to find a glass, fill it with water at the sink, and carry it outside. As she stepped back onto the street, two paramedics lifted the child on a stretcher. Helen ran closer, the water slopping onto the ground. As they carried the boy away, a woman said something about the bollards blocking access to the wounded.

Police officers stretched a plastic awning to keep the rain off the site of the explosion. One of them approached Helen.

‘I saw you come out of the embassy. Please go back inside.’

‘Of course.’ Helen replied in German with an exaggerated English accent. She did not move, but looked up at the ambassador’s office, a pale-blue shard of steel and glass protruding from the sandstone cladding of the embassy. ‘Why do you think they set the bomb off on this side of the street?’

‘No idea,’ the policeman said.

‘But look. The walls of the embassy are solid concrete. What could they achieve?’

‘Maybe they weren’t attacking the embassy,’ the policeman said. ‘Go inside.’

‘Yes,’ Helen said. ‘I’m going. And thanks for your help. I think you said something important.’

She turned and crossed the road to the embassy gates.

(Excerpt ends)

I hope you have enjoyed this post on how to build characters – and have enjoyed the excerpt!  My next post in this series uses Chapter 4 of “Blood Summit” to show more about Point of View.

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