Guest Post: Sybil Johnson

Please welcome Sybil Johnson, author of the Aurora Anderson mysteries, to the blog

Relationships and Plot

Relationships are at the heart of every story. In many ways, they drive it, affecting how a character acts and reacts to the events and obstacles thrown in their way. People make different decisions based on their relationships with others. Let’s say we’re talking about a child and a parent. If the relationship is good and a parent is accused of murder, the child will likely fight to clear their name. But if the relationship is bad or nonexistent, why go to all that trouble? Some kids might even work to get a conviction!

A Palette for MurderI’ve heard some people say that characters and their relationships don’t matter much in genre fiction, it’s the plot that counts. While plot is certainly very important in a mystery, so are relationships between characters. Both are crucial to any story, especially books in a series. Readers come back to them again and again not only because they enjoyed the story, but also because they like the people inhabiting it, want to revisit the world the author has created and see what’s up next for the recurring characters.

That’s why, after the initial idea for a story comes to me, I immediately turn to developing the characters and their relationships with each other. In my most recent book, A Palette for Murder, I knew the story was going to take place in August in my fictional town of Vista Beach during an unusual heat wave, it would involve someone who was homeless, there’d be a trompe l’oeil class in it and my main character, Rory Anderson, would find the body of a neighbor. That’s it.

At that point, I asked myself what new characters would inhabit the story and why Rory would feel compelled to investigate. Was one of her family members being accused of the crime? A close friend? Or was a family business being threatened? Whoever, or whatever, it was the relationship between Rory and the person or business had to be strong enough she would want to investigate. I also work out the interconnections between the victim and murderer as well as between the victim and other suspects.

Once the characters and relationships are worked out, I begin to plot and write. Whenever I’m stuck, I go back to my character notes and examine those relationships again. Usually within a short period of time, I think of what comes next.

Nothing is written in stone, of course. I’ve been known to change characters and their relationships to each other when something isn’t working out as I’m writing the story. But it’s figuring out those initial thoughts on the relationships that gives me somewhere to begin, to figure out the story I want to tell.


Sybil Johnson’s love affair with reading began in kindergarten with “The Three Little Pigs.” Visits to the library introduced her to Encyclopedia Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and a host of other characters. Fast forward to college where she continued reading while studying Computer Science. After twenty years in the computer industry, Sybil decided to try her hand at writing mysteries. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine among others. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Sybil now wields pen and paintbrush in Southern California where she crafts the Aurora Anderson mystery series (Fatal Brushstroke, Paint the Town Dead and A Palette for Murder) set in the world of decorative painting.


9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Sybil Johnson”

  1. 1) I love that cover! 2) Welcome Sybil! and 3) Relationships and characterization > plot. I think about the books I’ve reread over the years and a totally woven plot is not why I come back — it’s the characters. Every time.


  2. Welcome, Sybil! It makes me so sad when I hear someone say one characteristic of genre fiction is that plot is more important than character. The characters are what keep me (as a reader and a writer) coming back to a favorite series!


  3. Relationships between the characters is so important! It impacts how the plot will go. Welcome, Sybil, and I look forward to checking out your books!


  4. Welcome, Sybil! You’re absolutely right that relationships drive plot, especially in mysteries where character motivation seems so crucial! Can’t wait to check out your books; I’m always in the market for a good cozy 🙂


  5. Welcome, Sybil! Three books now! I remember you talking about your first book at Malice Domestic. You are an inspiration. Agreed about relationships. The more I read, the more I understand that is the heart of the story. To me, the puzzle is just the framework. Hope to see you at Malice this year!


  6. Okay, apparently I’m not good at posting comments today. It’s not Friday the 13th is it? Here’s what I wanted to say: Thanks for having me! I read a series because of the characters as well, so I try to keep that in mind while I’m writing. And, Keenan, I shall see you at Malice.


  7. I’ve heard it said, there are no new plots, just twists and variations of stories that have been around since man first began telling stories. But characters, there’s no end to variations of people we bring to the page. I’m with you, Sybil, it’s the character’s telling and portrayal of the story that makes the book.


  8. Love this post, Sybil!

    And “Readers come back to them again and again not only because they enjoyed the story, but also because they like the people inhabiting it, want to revisit the world the author has created and see what’s up next for the recurring characters.” = Yes! ❤


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