November 6 – 11: “Is tone linked more to the author’s or the character’s attitude?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’ve got a full house this week here at the Roundtable, and we’re turning our focus to tone. Is tone linked more to the author’s or the character’s attitude? ITW Members Marty Wingate, Matthew Peters, Jeffrey B. Burton, Linda Lovely, Tim Waggoner, Terrence McCauley, Michael Sears, Pat Gussin, James Tucker and Kathy Valenti will be weighing in. Scroll down to the “comments” to see what they have to say!


Matthew Peters is a writer living in North Carolina. He is the author of THE BROTHERS’ KEEPERS: A NICHOLAS BRANSON NOVEL–BOOK 1, and KILLING JOHN THE BAPTIST: A NICHOLAS BRANSON NOVEL–BOOK 2. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers.



Jeffrey B. Burton was born in Long Beach, California, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received his BA in Journalism at the University of Minnesota. Novels in Burton’s Agent Drew Cady mystery series include THE CHESSMAN, THE LYNCHPIN, and THE EULOGIST. His short stories have appeared in dozens of magazines. Jeff is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Horror Writers Association.


New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Patricia Gussin is a physician who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, practiced in Philadelphia, and now lives on Longboat Key, Florida, with her husband Robert Gussin. She is the author of seven novels including Shadow of Death, Thriller Award nominee for Best First Novel, and After the Fall, winner of the Florida Book Award.


Kathleen Valenti is the author of PROTOCOL, a medical thriller that examines the dangers of technology, the price of progress and the depths of greed to uncover what happens when the invisible among us disappears. PROTOCOL is the first of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series. The series’ second book will be released in Spring 2018. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running.


Hundreds of mystery/thriller writers have met Linda Lovely at check-in for the annual Writers’ Police Academy, which she helps organize. Lovely finds writing pure fiction isn’t a huge stretch given the years she’s spent penning PR and ad copy. Writing lets her “disappear” the types of characters who most annoy her without the need to pester relatives for bail. Bones To Pick is her sixth mystery/thriller and the first in a new humorous mystery series.


Best-selling author Marty Wingate shares her love of Britain in two mystery series, the Potting Shed books, featuring Pru Parke, a middle-aged American gardener transplanted from Texas to England, and Birds of a Feather, following Julia Lanchester, bird lover, who runs a tourist office in a Suffolk village. Marty also leads garden tours to Britain, spending free moments deep in research for her books. Or in pubs.


Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original fiction, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, and his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Terrence P. McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction and thrillers. The third novel in his University Series – A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS – was published by Polis Books in September 2017. The other novels in the series, Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows were also published by Polis Books. Terrence has also written two award-winning novels set in 1930 New York City – Prohibition and Slow Burn.In 2016, Down and Out Books also published Terrence’s World War I novella – The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood. Proceeds from sales go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.


Michael Sears writes with Stanley Trollip under the name Michael Stanley. Their novels, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The mysteries are set against current southern Africa issues such as the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari (DEATH OF THE MANTIS, shortlisted for Edgar and Anthony awards, won a Barry award in 2011), the pervasive power of witch doctors (DEADLY HARVEST, shortlisted for an ITW Thriller award in 2014), blood diamonds, the growing Chinese influence, and biopiracy. The latest book in the series is DYING TO LIVE.


James Tucker has worked as an attorney at an international law firm and is currently an executive managing real estate strategy at a Fortune 500 company, where his work includes frequent travel throughout the United States. Fascinated by the crimes of those in power, he draws on these cases for his writing. He has a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School and was one of four fiction writers awarded a position at a past Mentor Series at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. He has attended the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop in Portland, where he was mentored by author Walter Kirn. He lives near Minneapolis with his wife, the painter Megan Rye, and their family. NEXT OF KIN is his first novel.



  1. The tone of a thriller linked to more to the character or to the author?

    I know really nice authors who have written thrillers with the creepiest and most horrific of tones. An example, Carter Wilson, (Comfort of Black; The Final Crossing) whose characters’ tone are beyond immoral and brutal. Carter, himself, a true gentleman.

    And there are authors who write truly terrifying thrillers but in a tone that echoes their own lovely personality. An example, Helaine Mario (The Lost Concerto.)

    I was on a panel with the great Lisa Gardner (Thriller Award Winner). Her novels have such a chilling tone, and yet, she’s such a wonderful person. You’d never believe that the stuff of her novels comes from such a lovely person.

    Having said that, I don’t know any despicable authors who write with a charming tone.

  2. ‘Is tone linked more to the author’s or the character’s attitude?’

    Let’s look at this slightly differently in terms of the author’s attitude towards the book. What type of story are you trying to tell? A cozy, a police procedural, a thriller? While it’s quite possible to write all of these from different viewpoints and in different tones, I think the author will decide on the style of the book, and this will largely determine the tone. It isn’t likely that Miss Marple will participate in an action thriller, neither can we imagine James Bond solving a small town murder.

    Once one has that basic structure, one can think about suitable characters, and indeed the character’s attitude may then affect the tone. Is this a mover and shaker, or a reluctant hero dragged into the story? Gandalf in The Hobbit or Bilbo? That most of the book is from Bilbo’s point of view largely sets its tone. Having said that, an important part of any book is that the characters develop during the story, and so their attitudes change too. Thus the tone of the book may be somewhat different as it progresses, as the characters develop.

    I guess I’m trying to have fifty cents each way. I’d say the author’s attitude sets the global tone, but the characters’ attitudes will set the local tone.

    1. I think the distinction you make between the macro-level and micro-level is an important one. In some ways, and however hard we might try to avoid it, our attitudes are going to shape the tone of our novels–either consciously or subconsciously–to some extent.

      1. I think that’s right. Obviously the author is really setting the tone, but the characters – once defined – will only be believable in a certain context.

    2. Yes – what sort of story are we telling? I agree that goes a long way to setting our tone. That makes me think of writing another version of one of my books either from another character’s POV or as another sort of story entirely – yet using the same events. I wonder what would happen.

  3. I believe a story’s tone is linked to the character’s attitude. The main tone in THE EULOGIST stems from the protagonist, which is a pervasive bitten-by-life cynicism. However, a couple chapters are from a misanthropic hacker’s point of view, and the tone changes dramatically as this character hates most people, places and things. A couple other chapters are from the point of view of the General Counsel at a pharmaceutical company, and the tone becomes more somber, reflective and philosophical in nature.

    I’ve written a bunch of short stories and, in that medium, you throw everything you’ve got into creating a certain tone – a certain atmosphere – much of which stems from the main character’s attitude. As a result, most of my short stories are different in tone and atmosphere.

  4. In some ways, tone is dictated by the author’s attitude, since tone is usually understood to mean syntax, vocabulary, and level of formality—all of which are linked to the author. But if one broadens the definition of tone to include mood, the latter aspect is more effectively linked to the attitude of the character.

    Up until the twentieth century, the author’s attitude in novels was quite apparent. This was a result of the popularity of the omniscient voice, where the author knew all, saw all, and told all. Today’s storytelling is mostly done from the perspective of the characters (either in first-person or third-person), so it is from their attitude that tone emerges.

    In my thrillers, I try to remove the authorial voice as much as possible. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one character, so I rely on the thoughts, words, and actions of him/her to set the tone. This gets particularly interesting when the lead character in a chapter is non-human, such as a house, a place, or the weather.

    1. Great point, Matthew, on the author’s attitude being apparent up until the twentieth century. Several of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were similar in tone – the narrator’s descent into madness. And Mark Twain’s voice came through in much of his work.

      1. Poe and Twain are excellent examples. I’m a huge fan of nineteenth century literature, especially Dostoevsky and Gogol. Dostoevsky’s life experiences, especially when he was lined up to be executed and then granted reprieve at the last moment, certainly shaped the tone of his novels. Sometimes I wonder if the change away from the omniscient view had anything to do with the increasing secularization of society–away from playing God and more toward individuals/individualism.

  5. Some novels do have an underlying tone that I associate with a specific author. This tone–a blend of attitude and style–carries through even when some of my favorite authors are writing books that feature different protagonists. On this list, I’d include Carl Hiaasen, Pat Conroy, and Robert B. Parker. I’d describe Hiaasen’s tone as playfully satiric; Conroy’s as introspective. and Parker’s as take-no-guff. Then again I love many chameleon authors who adapt the tone to varying protagonists.

    1. I love these examples of different authorial tones! (And I’m a big fan of all of those authors.) I have certain authors that I choose to reflect my current reading mood. 🙂 Also love the chameleons who reflect the tone and voice of their protagonists.

  6. For my work, I believe tone is dictated by the character I’m writing in that particular scene in that particular work. For example, Charlie Doherty’s tone from the first person perspective in a story set in 1930s NYC is going to be completely different from James Hicks’s perspective in a techno-thriller like A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS. I think a character’s tone can also change as a story evolves and, in fact, needs to change if one is writing a series character. If the character is unchanged from the first book to the tenth book, then the author is doing something wrong and the audience isn’t being served as well as they should. I believe readers invest in characters who are in some way relatable to them. If a character doesn’t grow or change during the course of a story, novel or series, then the audience may lose interest and move on to someone else.

    As a writer, I like to challenge myself to make sure my work continues to evolve, that I try new things in the way of point of view and different characters. Tone is a great way to change things up for myself and my audience.

    1. This is exactly the approach I take. I think the point you make regarding a character’s change in tone is crucial. The two main characters in my Nicholas Branson novels–Branson and Jessica Jones–are certainly changed by their experiences, and their attitudes toward what they see and what they feel shift accordingly. I strive to convey my characters’ attitudes and to leave mine out as much as possible. I feel that the characters are the ones “living” the story, not me.

      1. These are really good points. I think what a writer has to consciously avoid, though, are flip-flops in character. Like one minute they are flippant and the next time they are serious as hell about the same general circumstance. That drives readers crazy. Evolution is good, but flip-flops are not – unless the character is schizophrenic or a split personality (I just watched the movie SPLIT.)

  7. “Is tone linked more to the author’s or the character’s attitude?”

    In my case, the answer isn’t one or the other, it’s both. Some readers associate me with the protagonist in my Potting Shed series. Pru certainly embodies some of my traits (and so this influences the tone), but so does Julia Lanchester in my Birds of a Feather series.

    Pru is less likely to speak her mind, and usually thinks the best of people. Julia, on the other hand, often speaks before she thinks and is quick and often extreme in her first impressions of people – even if she’s found wrong later.

    But these characters – although created by me – have taken on a life of their own, and I’m careful to let them set the tone, because it’s an important way for me and readers to distinguish between the two series.

  8. This is such a fascinating question, and I’d wager that the answer varies among authors (and readers).

    In my debut medical thriller PROTOCOL, tone is largely articulated through the voice of my protagonist, Maggie O’Malley. Since the book is written in a very close third-person, her experiences and observations amplify mood, creating not only a sense of dread, urgency or elation for specific situations, but also directing the overall tone of the book.

    On the other hand, some of my favorite authors use their own voices and attitudes to infuse tone, sort of directing how the book “feels.” And I suppose I do that, too. Maggie doesn’t always see things in a humorous light, for example, but I often do, and that sensibility bleeds through, setting tone.

    That’s a long way of saying that, although my character leads the way, we do set the tone together. Sometimes my tone matches Maggie’s. Sometimes it doesn’t. For the most part, though, it’s in synch because we’re telling the same story.

  9. I think it can go either way. In THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, the tone comes more from Douglas Adams’ narration than it does the characters (although they reflect that tone as well). In Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr aeries, the tone comes more from the characters’ perspectives, one a darker tone, one a lighter tone. I think either approach can work, and it can be a conscious choice on the part of the author or an unconscious development as he or she writes. In my case, I think the tone comes from me more than it does my characters, unless I’m writing a media tie-in novel where the tone is already set by the original property. I’m usually aware of what kind of tone I’m trying to se when I begin a story or novel, but it’s possible for that tone to shift as I write.

  10. Interesting spread of perspectives here already. In our Detective Kubu novels – because it’s a series – I think Kubu’s character does now drive tone. Although some of the novels are darker than others, Kubu’s interaction with his family, the cultures of Botswana, and his approach to his colleagues – to say nothing of his approach to food and drink – certainly set the style of the books in the series.

  11. I like Linda Lovely’s comments about the distinctive tone of Haissen and Conroy and Parker. I always got a kick out the sameness of tone throughout Parker’s Spencer, Jesse Stone, and even Sunny Randall series. Readers know in advance just what they will get, and as Kathy Valenti points out, they can choose who to read based on their mood. I wonder if there are examples of authors who experimented with tone changes and who lost reader loyalty as a result?

    1. Such a great question! I love when characters drive tone, but there are certain authors I reach for because their tone creates a specific reading experience. (And Hiaasen is definitely in that category.) Would I stop reading if his tone changed? Hmmm… an intriguing question! I bet I’d follow him to see where he goes–at least at first. 🙂

      1. I was wondering with the Jesse Stone example whether readers still feel that way now that Reed Farrel Coleman is writing them? He says that while he tries to keep Robert B Parker’s tone, he does have his own style. He can’t pretend to be Parker.

        1. I haven’t read Reed Farrel Colemen’s rendition. But I will just to test this out. One other variable is that I (read) a lot of audiobooks and here the narrator is ultra-important with regard to tone. Wonder whether the old narrator for Parker’s Stone is the same as the one for Coleman’s Stone.

          1. That will be interesting. Reed was told by a friend that all Elvis impersonators are just that. He took it to heart used his own approach while trying to be true to Parker.

            Good point about audio books. The narrator may change the tone. A third aspect to this particular question.

  12. My college English professor defined fiction as a story that is inwardly consistent. So, if wizards exist in that world, that’s okay as long the wizards behave in a way that is consistent.

    I think tone—and by that word I mean the attitude of the author to the story and characters, but also and especially mood—must be consistent in that world. This doesn’t mean it can’t change. When William Styron’s masterpiece, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, has scenes in New York, there are many moments of high comedy. But the tone changes as the reader is taken along Sophie’s memories of Auschwitz. Having the high comedy in Poland wouldn’t work in that novel.

    Phillip Kerr’s excellent Bernie Gunther mysteries set in Nazi Germany have a sardonic humor. They’re funny but very dark, as befits the setting and the cruelty he describes.

    For the mystery/thriller genre, I prefer a tone that may have some funny lines but doesn’t depart overly much from seriousness. One also can change the tone to make a point. For example, if Jack Reacher suddenly began talking about how much he loves to shop on Rodeo Drive, the reader would know he’s not serious and making another kind of point. My favorite mystery authors create that mood, and the characters swim in it like half-poisoned water. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, does this extremely well in his Quirke novels that take place in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s. Menace lurks just beneath the surface, and almost all of it is hidden. Also see: Michael Connelly’s Bosch books and Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books. The dark mood enhances dark characters, which drives suspense.

  13. What I see a lot, particularly with new authors, is the dredging up of all the author’s personal likes and dislikes. Trying to act out their pet peeves via their characters. If this gets to be blatant, it detracts from the story and seems disingenuous.

    1. Agreed! There needs to be a separation, unless it’s a truly autobiographical novel. Most mysteries aren’t autobiographical, so the author shouldn’t intrude too much.

  14. Have any of us written something and then sat back and thought, “Where did that come from?” And if so, has that phrase, paragraph or turn-of-events been rewritten?

    I have occasionally splashed something out on the page and afterward given it considerable thought – does this really reflect my protagonist’s POV? Sometimes, it only needs tweaking to sound right for Pru.

    1. Yes. When I wrote NEXT OF KIN and the next book in the series, I really tried to stay in Buddy Lock’s head. I had to be sure that what he said and did felt right for him. Sometimes, I had to delete something that I might say but he never would. As I spent more time with him, it became easier to take on his skin. Helpful accidents happen when you’re really in tune with the character. Still, one makes mistakes. It was Tolstoy’s wife who’d read his books and say, in effect, “Anna would never say that. You must change it!”

      1. I love this–and have had these moments of examination. Being able to speak spontaneously in my protagonist’s voice (without my own intruding) reminds me of when I began dreaming in French after living with a family in France for a few weeks. It’s like a kind of character fluency. I’m finally speaking Maggie. 🙂

    2. Yes, that happens to us also. I think it’s a good example of the characters setting the tone. Now they have to do what they have to do. We may not kno it consciously, but we know it subconsciously.

  15. Lots of interesting comments. While I know there are authors able to change-up tone from book to book and/or when crossing genre boundaries, I think it’s quite difficult for most of us to keep our outlook on life from sneaking in and coloring a work’s mood. Think of it like the flourishes that appear in symphonies and enable fans to immediately identify the composer. While my new book is a humorous mystery, I’ve also published traditional mysteries and romantic thrillers. Even when I’m not writing a “humorous” book, humor surfaces from time to time. No matter how dire the circumstance or evil the antagonists, my protagonists occasionally find something to laugh about. It’s one of my ways of coping so it seems natural for it to be one of my protagonist’s coping strategies. While such humorous interludes may not color the tone of the entire book, they lighten scenes and offer contrast and relief from dark moments and high tension.

    1. That’s an interesting comment about music, Linda. As a classical music degree student musician one of our aural tasks was to identify the composer of an unknown piece of music. Harmonic structure, orchestration, melody, period style and a national ‘sound’ all identify a composer and if it wasn’t who we eventually chose we had to think was it a contemporary or someone influenced by that person and go from there.

      1. My point above being, that unless a composer is deliberately writing ‘in the style of’ there are certain subtle characteristics that make their style theirs.

        Same for authors I would hazard a guess. whatever tone they are employing for the novel or character.

  16. I’d be interested to see what other responding authors make of the distinction, as I’m unclear on it. A character’s attitude is the author’s invention. Now, suppose I could write about a Type-A corporate attorney facing a crime within his firm. Not having that background or personality type, I would have to imagine his inner workings, invent his thought processes, and create tone as the natural result of the character’s POV. However, I tend to write more about people whose heads I can get into with less effort; hence my character’s attitude will be largely an extension of my own.

  17. Ha–I wrote that and posted before I saw all the other posts! Okay–lot’s of views on this. And yes, I agree that–since the author is the creator of the character, the author can deviate from his or her natural (personal) speaking voice and adopt the voice of, say, a serial killer, with the pertinent attendant tone. So, I’ll modify my prior statement and just say that I haven’t done that yet.
    On second thought, I have: In TRUST ME, the passages that are in the killer’s POV are clearly different in tone than those following other characters. So, back to the question: “Is tone linked more to the author’s or the character’s attitude?” Author creates tone by defining character’s attitude.

  18. Earl Javorsky, I agree that in scenes written in the killer’s POV, the tone will (hopefully) be quite different than ones written in the hero/heroine’s POV. However, in most thrillers, far more time is spent in the protagonist’s POV than the villain’s. As a result, the novel’s overall tone is influenced most by the hero/heroine’s character. It’s here that I believe the author’s tone becomes a big influence. When creating his/her main characters, the author’s attitudes toward life often seep through.

    1. I certainly agree. But even with villains – particularly the psychopath-next-door types- the author’s attitudes can seep in and that’s a good technique as it can catch to reader off guard.

  19. I just finished reading Sandra Brown’s MEAN STREAK. Because of this week’s topic, I paid more attention to character attitude’s and the author’s style. What impressed me was how well she maintained each and every character’s attitude. The characters each had a very distinctive style from which the master-author never wavered. I loved the book, BTW.

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