Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What a Character!

Last week I mentioned motive. So how about this week I blog a little on Character?

Today we are often described as living in “the second golden age of the mystery,” the first being the period between the two World Wars, when Dame Agatha, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers and others ruled the mystery bookshelves. It is also often said (often by the same people) that today’s mysteries are more “character driven” than the old ones. I’m not sure that’s true, especially when I haul out the Sayers for a trip down memory lane. Lord Peter Wimsey was (is) a complex character, as was (is) his true love, Harriet Vane. Even Lord Peter’s vague, stupid brother and vain, impossible sister-in-law were interesting, I think. And his mother was a dear, diplomatic, far-sighted person.

Okay, Agatha Christie seemed to have a japaned box of perhaps fourteen characters, and when she’d start a new novel she’d open it and select six or eight of them: the retired army colonel who’d spent years in India, the shockingly-modern young thing, her ineffectual brother, the over-sexed wife, the bankrupt husband, the pair of women (one very masculine) who lived together, etc. But these are “types” who existed in her world, and so have a kind of reality. Still, Dame Agatha was more interested in keeping us guessing her solution than in showing us something new about human nature. A great deal of what we find trite or cliché about mysteries were INVENTED by this grand mistress of us all.

Today’s mysteries do, by and large, have more complex, more interesting characters, some of whom live uncommon lives in unusual locales. Hurrah for us!

I want to mention here my writers group, Crème de la Crime, because they are always pushing me to dig deeper into myself and my characters to make them behave in more realistic ways. Betsy Devonshire has depths I never thought to plumb before they got on my case, and all my characters react more realistically to what I'm putting them through. And it has improved my books tremendously. One of my favorite compliments is, “When I read one of your books, I feel like I’m visiting old friends.” I thank Crème de la Crime for helping me earn that compliment, and I will continue to do so, even when they are coming down hard on me.

I recently read a short interview with an author who admitted that he frequently used people he knew as the models for his characters. But only people he didn’t know well. He said that when you get to know someone really well, they become too complicated to translate into literature. Literary characters should be painted with a broad brush. The more I think about that, the more I agree with it. Unless you are writing a biography, a character needs to be summoned in a kind of shorthand: “He was a short man, and therefore peppery in nature, making up in noise and bounce for his lack of inches.” We all know people like that – and there, you see? We are back to Agatha Christie’s “types.” Every person is unique, true. But also there are quiet people, bad-tempered people, sullen people, dangerous people, kind people. When writing about a fictional person, the author can’t spend pages introducing the reader to a character. So especially the first meeting must be shown in simple, recognizable terms. More and more can be revealed as the book moves along, but the descriptions must not get in the way of the story, especially in a mystery novel – which is, by definition, centered on the mystery. On the other hand, there are some amazing, fascinating people walking through the pages of today's mystery novels. They are as complex and "real" as the ones who live in classic literature.

Advice for the novice writer: Don’t make yourself crazy about developing wildly "different" characters. People love to recognize themselves in books, too. Follow the First Rule of Writing Fiction: Write what you know. Write about people you are familiar with – and include some people you like. You’re going to spend a lot of time in their company, don’t set yourself up for hours of pain. A long time ago I was told that the afterlife for an author is spent in a small room in the company of your characters. You can make that seem like heaven or hell, your choice.


Anonymous said...

The crafting of a character is such an interesting process. Ideally we see him or her quite clearly in our mind, but how to convey a distinct and interesting individual with a minimum amount of words? Speech patterns, gestures? And in the case of description, how do you decide when to stop and allow the reader to fill in the outlines?

But on a related note, one thing about some contemporary mysteries really annoys me: why the protagonist gets involved in the first place. We all recognize there would be no plot if she or he didn't jump in and start investigating, but all too often there is no compelling reason, just nosiness or the misguided belief that the police are asleep at the wheel or incompetent. It's a black mark against any character's character (I know, bad pun) if he or she starts out by doing something stupid.

Sheila Connolly

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Great post, Monica. We're blessed to have you for many reasons.

I was recently at a Romance Writers workshop where we were instructed to do an interesting exercise--we pulled up an empty chair and had a conversation with our main character. It was totally enlightening. I learned something about my protag in the YA I'm working on. The exercise helped me get "Joanna" out of the way so my character could speak with her own clear voice.

Kathryn Lilley said...

You're right about questioning why the protagonist gets involved, Sheila! That's why I'm sometimes grateful that my heroine is an investigative TV journalist--she has a legitimate mandate to poke her nose into unsolved mysteries, which become her stories.

Ellen said...

That's why Superman got a job at the Daily Planet. Officially, he wanted to get the super-jobs early, and working at a newspaper kept him informed. Unofficially, I suspect, the writers wanted to give him lots of excuses to poke into things.