Thursday, August 1, 2013

Give me a character-driven mystery!

Elizabeth Zelvin

Millions of readers buy page-turning, heart-pounding, nonstop-action thrillers, and millions more go to see them in the movies. Plotting is one of the chief elements of the storyteller’s art. And since stories consist of words, of course the writing is important in a work of fiction. But what makes the difference to me between a book—or a movie or a TV series—that’s merely okay and one I love and can’t wait for more of is character.

Give me a protagonist I can empathize with, one who’s intelligent and complex, one who isn’t described—and doesn’t talk or think—in clich├ęs. Make me forget he or she isn’t real. Give this character feelings. Put him or her into relationships—with lovers, parents, children, friends, colleagues, and antagonists—that feel authentic and have some depth. While you’re making things happen in the investigation or chase or caper or doomsday scenario, put conflict into the character’s relationships too. Give that character a chance to grow in self-knowledge, perseverance, and resilience, which I consider the three essential qualities of a mature human being.

If the characters ring true to me—if you can make me love them and care what happens to them—it hardly matters what kind of story or setting you put them in: mean streets of noir or stately homes of Golden Age detective story, galactic future or historical past, post-apocalyptic dystopia or realm of fantasy. For example, quite a number of my A-list mystery series are police procedurals, British police procedurals in particular. If I dare admit it, I don’t really care that much about police procedure. But how else would I have made the acquaintance of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgleish, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Bill Slider, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, or Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James? All these characters have a vivid existence that stretches far beyond the confines of their investigations.

I’ve become a very picky reader of authors new to me, a non-finisher of books that aren’t engaging my interest. One of the books I’ve liked the best this summer—enough to think about buying its predecessors in the series—is Jane Casey’s The Last Girl. Her Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is in the direct line of descent from the characters mentioned above. She’s got a case that she won’t let go of, an ambivalent boyfriend, an obnoxious partner who occasionally surprises us by showing a little heart, an embarrassing mother, and a stalker. Now that’s a character you can sink your teeth into.

I’ve been kind of bingeing on the TV versions of British detective series via Netflix and my iPad, both service and hardware new to me so I have a lot of catching up to do. All are based on books, though the characters and storylines tend to develop far beyond—or sometimes differently from—what’s laid out by the original author. The Dalziel and Pascoe characters are true to the novels, but on TV, Pascoe’s marriage doesn’t last. (One assumes the actress had other fish to fry and had to be written out.) Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders seems to be going on forever, and Barnaby’s had two different sergeants since his original sidekick Troy. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse was a huge success, more popular and more lovable in the TV series than he’d been in the books. Now that Morse is deceased, we have Inspector Lewis—and isn’t it a delight to see him develop from the callow sergeant whom Morse could always trick or bully into paying for every round in the pub into a self-assured and humane investigator whose love life is finally getting back on track after the loss of his wife.

In one of this season’s episodes of Inspector Lewis, a very new detective constable is assigned to Lewis while Hathaway is on vacation. Lewis is not particularly pleased to be saddled with a babysitting task. His boss says, “Be nice to him.” Lewis says, “If Inspector Morse had been nice to me, I’d still be a sergeant.” We smile, because we still remember and believe in Morse, that clever and cantankerous man, and his relationship with Lewis, which included admiration, exasperation, and affection.


Sheila Connolly said...

All excellent points, Liz. It's very hard to care about what happens in a book if you don't feel any connection with the protagonist.

I might add: vulnerability. People are complex and inconsistent (I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know!), and I think they're more believable to a reader if you show their moments of self-doubt.

Hasn't Midsomer Magna (or is it Parva?) become the new Cabot Cove? They've managed to kill off a lot of the local population.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yes about Midsomer Magna and the county in general. Barnaby may be the true successor to Miss Marple--what don't they get up to in a village!

Bob Tinsley said...

And don't forget DC Endeavor Morse. The new "Endeavor" series is following along behind "Inspector Morse" and "Inspector Lewis" with great success. The first season had one weak episode, "Rocket", but overall, it is a winner. Russell Davis is really bringing out the evolution of Inspector Morse's character, particularly in the last episode of the first season when we meet Morse's family and see demonstrated his loyalty (though not necessarily his approval of) to his fellow police officers.

Patty said...

I also don't finish books if I can't engage with the characters. For example, I didn't finish Gone Girl because I hated both of the main characters. I think I got about 20 pages in and just quit.

You, on the other hand, write wonderful characters and I look forward to reading more of them.

Polly Iyer said...

I agree, Liz. I can't sustain interest in a book if I don't care about the characters. I like them complex, warts and all, in addition to being fully engaged in the plot. I've never understood why a book can't be both character-driven and plot driven. It seems to me they go together. Yet the question keeps coming up to both readers and writers.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much, Patty. Polly, the three-legged stool on which a great book stands is excellent in plot, character, and writing. We don't see more of it because not every author can pull it off. :)

Shalanna said...

I'm ecstatic to see this mentioned by someone who has a lot of credibility in publishing (as well as in blogging!) Many, MANY reviewers (not ALL of them male) have reacted to my books by saying that my heroine(s) should always be Alpha and aggressive and never think before they act or have any self-doubt.

I disagree with those reviewers. I can't stand the sort of action/suspense stuff that is out now with cardboard characters and stereotypically alpha people. When these characters have a thought, by the way, it's always "he thought to himself" or "she reminded herself," which shows you the chasm-sized psychic distance. I forbid such phrases in my work. How else would you think but TO YOURSELF--on a billboard on I-20?

All the books I have on my keepers shelf star characters who are more complex than that (and even sometimes inconsistent, in a believable and EXPLAINED sort of way so that it doesn't look as if the author made a mistake.)

I want a vicarious experience in which I look through a new person's eyes, and that person has to be clever and smart and sometimes witty. Give me a character-driven book every time. My two mystery series (written as Denise Weeks) have taken heat for being concerned with the characters' lives. I believe the books will find their audience--others who read for character the way I do. (What do you remember from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or CASABLANCA--the details of the plot, or Atticus and Boo? Claude Rains and Bogie? It's the sacrifices made by the characters that make Casablanca poignant.)

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I'll be half a Devil's Advocate here and say that a book without BOTH interesting characters and an interesting plot turn me off. I can tolerate a one-sided approach better in a short story, but in progressing from short to novella to novel, I want it all! On the other hand, a book heavy on background and setting and light on plot and characterization are even worse. Many "classics" fall into this latter category and turn many students away from literature every semester.