Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Designing a Sleuth

Sandra Parshall

Recently I took part in a writers’ workshop where my job was to talk about creating an appealing and believable sleuth. The assignment made me realize that I’d never given any concentrated thought to the subject. Like a lot of writers, I suspect, I’ve developed my main characters through my plots, and they’ve been whatever the story demanded. However, a writer hoping to create a long-running series would be smart to focus on the character and build stories around him or her.

Editors today are looking for character-driven crime novels. You might think this has always been the case – weren’t Agatha Christie’s books built around Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot? – but the reader is actually given little information about some of mystery’s most famous sleuths. Christie never plumbed the depths of Miss Marple’s soul. She didn’t include flashbacks to Poirot’s tortured past. Her characters remain static, the same from book to book. Dorothy L. Sayers’s treatment of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane probably comes closest to the modern presentation of characters in crime novels who "grow and change" throughout a series.

A novel must have a solid plot, but character is usually more important. Plot problems can be fixed, but if you’ve written an entire novel around a dull, shallow character, meaningful repairs may be impossible. Agents and editors will tell you they “couldn’t connect with” your character, she’s too bland or too cool or too negative, she’s not different enough. We often hear that an editor is looking for series characters “unlike anything I’ve seen before.” This can lead writers to some strange choices, as they try to deliberately construct a rejection-proof sleuth. How about a blind detective who solves crimes primarily with her sense of smell? How about a guy who was in a devastating accident and now has two bionic arms that are strong enough to slay an army of bad guys? How about a flock of sheep that solve a murder? Oh, wait – the sheep mystery is a real book, published not long ago.

If your taste doesn’t normally run to the bizarre, and you doubt that you can carry it off, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to come up with something totally outside the norm. Try instead to create a character who will feel real and whose personality and abilities will win the readers’ affections and keep drawing them back to find out what’s happening in her life.

So what are in the ingredients for sleuth-making?

Above all, you should create a character you like and respect and want to spend a lot of time with – years of your life, if you’re lucky. The reader has to care about this person, but that won’t happen if the writer doesn’t care first. Sanity wears better than a collection of odd habits and extreme opinions. When a story world is populated by wildly colorful characters, the sleuth is often the sanest person in the book. A sense of humor is always endearing and can be used effectively to show the character's clear-eyed assessment of events.

It’s a given that your sleuth must be smart enough to solve crimes. If the character is an amateur, she must be smart enough to realistically succeed where the police fail. If your sleuth is a cop or P.I., she doesn’t have to be inhumanly brilliant, but she must be intelligent enough to make a living in one of those jobs. Do your research – don’t let your character make the sort of blunders that cause readers to groan aloud.

A sleuth should be savvy about people, able to read emotions and detect deception, attuned to the often subtle clues that give away clandestine relationships and unspoken animosity.

Stubbornness is essential. Major stubbornness. This is a person whose determination is fueled by obstacles, threats, and physical attacks. You can’t let your sleuth give up and go home to watch a favorite TV show in chapter 15, when any ordinary person would do exactly that.

A special skill or a fund of specialized knowledge will come in handy if you find a way for her to use it in solving crimes.

Today’s well-rounded and realistic sleuth needs a past, at least a few friends, and a family (even if it’s a single sibling or elderly aunt). Sidekicks abound in mysteries, and you can give a sidekick the colorful quirks that might seem over-the-top in a main character.

No real person is perfect, and a fictional character can’t be idealized either. Your sleuth needs flaws – balanced by virtues, of course. Coming up with something original isn’t easy, but the effort will pay off. The tough cop who’s battling a drinking problem has become a cliche. Drug and gambling problems are less common but no more appealing. Give this aspect of your character a lot of thought. You’ll be glad you did.

Above all, your sleuth needs a compelling reason to wade into a criminal investigation. These days, even the professionals must feel a personal stake in solving crimes. Curiosity isn’t enough for the amateur, and “it’s just my job” isn’t enough for a pro. Some readers still care most about the puzzle, the plot, but the majority want a novel to be an emotional experience for them. It won’t be if the sleuth is either too distant from the crime or is putting her life in danger out of simple curiosity.

That's my take on what makes a successful sleuth. I believe Ms. Christie would agree with me on some points -- but overall, she might be appalled at the lack of privacy afforded modern mystery sleuths!


Sofie Kelly said...

"Above all, your sleuth needs a compelling reason to wade into a criminal investigation. These days, even the professionals must feel a personal stake in solving crimes. Curiosity isn’t enough for the amateur, and “it’s just my job” isn’t enough for a pro."

Thank you for saying that. I've ranted so much about motivation that most people are rolling their eyes before I even get the word out now, but if the character's reasons for getting involved are lame I won't get past the first book in a series.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Sandy. Only one point I respectfully disagree with: that people with addictions necessarily has no appeal. If that's all a character has going for him and her, it's not enough. But alcoholics, addicts, and compulsive gamblers are as varied as writers--or readers. And as a group, if they're recovering, they're set up to "grow and change." The process--in real life or in fiction--can be dramatic, moving, and very appealing indeed.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Oops, typo. Make that HAVE no appeal.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, you're absolutely right that people with addictions are appealing -- IF they do "change and grow" in the course of a series. My complaint (which I should have clarified) is about characters who never learn, who mess up in the same way book after book while offering the same tired self-justification. A character struggling with a potentially life-destroying personal problem can be powerfully compelling, and the reader will be pulling for him to succeed. Sipowitz on NYPD Blue is a good example. But a character whose habitual method of dealing with stress is booze or drugs will eventually drive readers away.

Kim Haynes said...

Hi Sandy,
I'm a fellow Guppy who just dropped by to read your post... I loved it. I agree with everything you said, but wanted to add in something on the "character flaw" element. It can be really powerful if at some point your sleuth has to face up to his/her character flaw in order to solve a mystery. For example, you talked about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. In Gaudy Night, Harriet is forced to deal with her resistance to marrying Peter because the whole case revolves around "a woman's place in the world." Now, I wouldn't exactly say that her reluctance to marry is a character flaw, but it is certainly a major component of Harriet's character up until that point, and it makes the mystery that much richer because she has personal demons to deal with as well as the challenges of the case.

A Paperback Writer said...

This is why I love Inspector Rebus. He seems so very, very real.