June 10, 2014
What makes a compelling central character?
Mystery and suspense novels, by their very nature, demand complex and intriguing plots. But an ingenious plot is wasted if the protagonist and the antagonist have failed to hook the reader. If we’re not emotionally engaged with the hero, why should we care what happens to him or her? If the villain isn’t a worthy or credible adversary, then the tension and suspense is lost. Crime fiction is about the ‘battle’ of wits between two talented and fascinating people who, broadly speaking, represent the forces of good and evil. At the story’s climax, the protagonist and the antagonist will come together for the final confrontation Can the hero capture the mass murderer? Will the global catastrophe be averted? However, the story’s crescendo only matters if the reader cares about the hero. It is characters such as Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Inspector Rebus, Dr Tony Hill, Precious Ramotswe and Hercule Poirot that stay with us long after we have finished the book. So contrary to popular myth, crime fiction is not all about plot. The art of creating compelling, emotionally engaging, well-rounded and credible characters is critical to the success of a crime fiction story, just as it is for other genres.
“I think that a crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character,” says Michael Connelly, the creator of Detective Harry Bosch. “Creating and sustaining a main character with whom the reader makes empathetic connection is the biggest ball you must juggle when you are writing one of these things. It is also the most difficult task.”
Authors approach the creation of characters in vastly different ways. Some are lucky enough to see their protagonist fully formed in their imagination. They start writing and let the characters lead the story. As Stephen King says, “What happens to characters as the story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along.” Other novelists write character resumés and back stories, and list details of the character’s physiological, sociological and psychological make-up. Gary Disher plans his crime fiction in minute detail. He “interrogates” his characters to establish their motivations and to ensure they are credible. Other authors have used the method of writing a diary in character, so they can get inside the character’s head and establish the voice. “Dear diary, finally, I killed my mother today. What a relief!”
However a writer chooses to approach characterisation, the focus is on creating real people. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
The crime fiction heroes I love are not all good, and villains are not all bad. Complex flawed characters are lifelike. Hannibal Lector is a supporting character to the trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Lector is about as flawed as you can get, and yet he is compelling and is one of the most recognised thriller characters of all time. We are drawn by his brilliance, their battle of wits. He helps her catch Gumb. The Millennium Trilogy’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is an aggressive outsider, with a brutal moral code. But she’s sympathetic because she’s a victim and her resourcefulness, bravery and brilliance as a hacker has us mesmerised. She is, also, an active character, which is essential for a crime fiction hero. She doesn’t sit around waiting for something to happen. She makes things happen. As does Val McDermid’s Dr Tony Hill. What could be more boring than a detective who sits around waiting for the case to solve itself?
Point of view can further reveal character, both the object of that character’s focus and of the character themselves, because the reader is inside their head. We are now privy to how he or she sees the world and themselves. John Katzenbach’s The Madman’s Tale begins with, “I can no longer hear my voices, so I am a little lost. My suspicion is they would know far better how to tell this story.”
Conflict drives the story and keeps characters interesting. As I work on my novel, I keep asking, where is the conflict? How does this impact other characters? And I’m not just talking about external conflict, such as a character that blocks the hero’s path. I think about internal conflict. How might my protagonist be torn when faced with a difficult choice? What secret is he hiding?
I find character motivation fascinating. What drives them to do what they do? Why does the antagonist believe that the murders he commits, or the horror she is about to unleash on the world, is the right thing to do? How has the villain’s world view become so warped that the killing is justified?
Should a crime fiction protagonist develop during the course of the story? I enjoy reading about heroes who learn something as a result of their experiences, and I write thrillers in which they tap into an unrealised potential as a result of their ordeal. In The Genesis Flaw, Serena Swift is initially too focused on career and wealth to expose the biotech company responsible for her father’s death. She will become a whistle-blower. In Thirst, Luke Searle is an irresponsible father and Antarctic expeditioner, who, during the course of the story, will choose to take on the ultimate responsibility: that of saving the lives of millions. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus or Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin are great examples of complex characters with real lives, who develop over the series. We get to know their families, their friends. We enter their homes. As we follow them onto the next book, and the next, we watch them grow, experience setbacks and disasters, and they discover more about themselves. For some authors, this character arc is perhaps more important than solving the crime. This has been said of Peter Temple’s novels, featuring detective Joe Cashin.
Other authors prefer their heroes to remain steadfast. They have an established moral compass and this governs how they act in each book. They are what they are, with clearly recognisable strength and weaknesses. It is the adversary and the mission that changes. As we follow this series character, we learn more about him or her, often about the past, which helps to explain how they are today. A great example of a hugely loved and enduring character is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
I will leave you with some of my favourite introductions to characters, one, a hero, and the other, a villain. Enjoy!
Michael Connelly, The Poet – “Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker…I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s my rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me.”
Michael Robotham, Shatter – “There is a moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectation, all faith, all desire. I own that moment. It belongs to me. That’s when I hear the sound, the sound of a mind breaking.”
John Le Carre, The Constant Gardener – “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.”