Dead Man's footsteps by Peter James

How to write characters: Peter James

Picture of Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

How to write characters is a perennial challenge for authors. Crime writer Peter James delivers a masterclass in vivid pen-portraits.

How to write characters

I’ve read many Peter James novels over the years. I particularly like his crime thrillers starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. James writes fluently and to a consistent quality, and his books are peppered with enticing cliffhangers.

Peter James: how to write characters

Some character sketches from “Dead Man’s Footsteps”

Peter James is also a master of how to write characters. I recently read “Dead Man’s Footsteps”, a Roy Grace thriller. I was struck by James’s crisp, short character sketches. They repay study for any wannabe writer. Here are a few. In each case it is the first time we have met the characters described. In many cases they make only a fleeting appearance in the story.

  • Detective Sergeant Normal Potting had a narrow, rather rubbery face criss-crossed with broken veins, protruding lips and a thinning comb-over, part of which at this moment was sticking bolt upright, having been blasted by the elements. He was fifty-three, although those who particularly disliked him spread rumours that he had knocked several years off his age so he could stay in the force longer, because he was terrified of retirement.
  • Steve Cowling stood in the doorway in his white gown, beaming with his perfect white teeth. A tall man in his mid-fifties, with a ramrod-straight military bearing, immaculate hair becoming increasingly grey each time Roy saw him, he exuded charm and confidence in equal measure, combined with a certain boyish enthusiasm, as if teeth really were the most exciting thing in the world. [Comment: Cowling is a dental specialist.]
  • Moments later a blurred figure appeared behind the frosted glass and the door opened. A flat-chested waif of a girl, dressed in a grubby smock dress and flip-flops, stared out at him. She had dirty, straggly fair hair like tendrils of seaweed and a wide, doll-like face with large, round, black-rimmed eyes. She said nothing.

Peter James: more character sketches

  • Stephen was a tall, lean, rather cold-looking man in his late forties, with greying wavy hair brushed harshly back, and his cheeks were a patchwork of purple drinker’s veins. He was wearing a pinstriped suit and expensive-looking loafers, and glanced at his watch the moment after he shook Branson’s hand.
  • The man who answered was a dead ringer for one of his favourite film actors of all time, Richard Harris… The man had one of those craggy faces Glenn found hard to put an age to. He could have been anywhere between mid-sixties and late seventies. His hair, closer to white than grey, was long and rather unkempt, and he was dressed in a cricket sweater over a sports shirt and tracksuit bottoms.
  • As the front door closed behind them, a tall, hugely overweight man of about fifty, with a big welcoming smile on his face, materialized through a concealed door in the panelling. Dressed in keeping with the premises, he was parcelled in a well-cut, chalk-striped three-piece suit and sported a striped college tie. His head was almost completely bald, except for a narrow fringe like a pelmet half-way up his forehead that looked faintly comical, and it was impossible to tell where his triple chin ended and his neck began.


Another endearing feature Peter James gives “Dead Man’s Footsteps” is that the characters are always producing heart-warming epigrams. This, too, helps illuminate and add depth to their characters.

Abby, the heroine of the book, exchanges regular loving texts with her man, such as this exchange:

  • Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and blows up the bonfire.
  • [She replies] Love is not gazing at each other. Love is staring together in the same direction.

Abby’s mum also likes epigrams. She says of motherhood:

  • ‘My mother used to say that one mother could support seven children, but seven children could never support one mother. You’ve proved her wrong.’

She goes on to say:

  • ‘Always remember one thing, Abby dear, if you ever decide to become a parent. First you give your children roots. Then you give them wings.’

How to write characters: what to do next

If you’re a writer, I’d welcome comments on Peter James’s sketches in this post, and your own tips on how to write characters. References to writing books with tips on how to write characters welcome, too!

If you’re a fan of crime fiction, give Peter James a go. Solid, entertaining and intriguing stuff.

I have never attempted crime fiction. But I have written a couple of thrillers. And my “Hotel Stories” feature Ms N, an anonymous hotel manager who solves (and sometimes commits) crimes as a sideline, including a few whodunnits. You can see all my books under the “books” heading on this website. Happy reading!

Seven Hotel Stories


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