Friday, December 17, 2010

'Cause I Don't Love You and You Don't Love Me*

An excellent book review from Maxine at Petrona, and another excellent review from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading have gotten me thinking about characters and how they affect whether or not we enjoy a novel. Readers want characters they can care about and they want characters who are interesting enough that it’s worth reading through to find out what happens to them. That’s true for fans of any genre, and it’s certainly true for crime fiction fans. A character doesn’t have to be a nice person in order to be interesting and worth reading about; in fact, there are some fascinating nasty people who populate crime fiction novels. So if it isn’t exactly being unpleasant that makes a character off-putting, what it is about some characters that makes readers stop caring about what happens to them? Here are just a few ideas:

Characters With No Redeeming Qualities

In real life, even off-putting people have some skill, some ability, or some positive quality. That’s also true in crime fiction. If a character has no positive qualities at all – nothing that makes him or her worth reading about – then readers won’t want to turn pages. You could say it’s part of making sure that characters are well-rounded and multi-dimensional, or you could say it’s part of making characters authentic. Either way, the best characters have at least something positive about them.

For instance, in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He’s a resident of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He’s a vicious killer who is quite candid about some of the brutal crimes he’s committed. To put it succinctly, he’s confined to this hospital for very, very good reasons. He is not a nice person. And yet, he is a most compelling character. He has redeeming qualities. For instance, he is absolutely brilliant. For many people, that’s a fine quality. He’s also well-spoken, a connoisseur of good food and wine, and he’s interesting. He is also very honest, and most people find that refreshing. Certainly he’s a complex person, as FBI trainee Clarice Starling discovers when she is assigned to get his help on a serial-killer case the FBI is working. As Starling and Lecter interact, match wits and slowly come to understand each other, we learn that Lecter is much more than just a deranged killer.

And then there’s Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon. He’s a killer, too. In fact, he’s a paid assassin who’s frequently employed by a shadowy Israeli Intelligence group called The Office. But he has redeeming qualities, too. He is a brilliant art restorer with a deep knowledge of the art world. He’s also a team leader with strong organizational skills. And, odd as it may seem, he has a code of ethics. Does he kill people? Yes. Does he have redeeming qualities? Also yes.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot certainly isn’t everyone’s cuppa. He’s finicky, conceited, and arrogant. He likes “running the show,” and even he admits he likes to boast about his ability to solve crime. And yet, he’s got millions of fans. Why? He’s brilliant. He can be very compassionate. He’s got a lot of knowledge, too, and he’s egalitarian: he’ll admit to being a bit of a snob, but he is no respecter of class and wealth when it comes to catching criminals.

Characters Who Aren’t Authentic

One important appeal of crime fiction is that it reflects real life. We get involved with fictional characters because they could be us. They act and speak like we do and have believable reactions to life. If characters are not authentic – if the reader can’t imagine a real person speaking or behaving the way the character does, this is often enough to make the reader stop caring.

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano has won a lot of fans in part because he is authentic. When things go well, he’s proud and happy as anyone would be. When they go badly he gets upset, curses and yells as lots of real life people do. He’s got romantic ups and downs, so to speak, the way real people do. When he solves cases, it’s not because of superhuman powers; instead, he uses his experience, his intelligence and help from his team-mates, just as real detectives do.

You could say that’s also true of Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon. She’s popular because she is an authentic person who reacts to life as real people do. She feels the same conflicts between job and home that many people with full-time jobs and children have. She’s not always right. She’s not even always pleasant to be around. But she is real.

So are Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. They react in very authentic ways to life. For instance, at one point in the series, James suffers a sad personal loss. Her reaction to it is believable and authentic. James and Kincaid often have to face the conflicts between their jobs and their desire for a stable home life, and they react to those conflicts in believable ways.

Martin Edwards’ Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind are authentic characters, too. For instance, in The Cipher Garden, DCI Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old murder of landscaper Warren Howe. As they look into the case, some shocking, dark secrets are revealed. One of those secrets results in a tragic event; when that event happens, Scarlett’s reaction is as human as a reader could want.

Characters Who are “Flat” or Stereotyped

A well-written crime fiction novel is focused on the plot. But at the same time, character development also matters. Characters who are too “flat” – whom we don’t learn anything about – can leave the reader with no interest. They’re almost like the connect-the-dots picture you see. Characters who are sketched in as stereotypes, with no interesting qualities, also put readers off. This doesn’t mean that every single character in a novel must be given a complete backstory. It does mean, though, that in well-written crime fiction, the characters have some personality that goes beyond mere outlines.

For instance, Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope is far from stereotypical. She’s got personal demons like a lot of crime fiction sleuths, but she isn’t obsessed with them. She enjoys her pint, but she’s not a stereotypical alcoholic “loner” detective.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun is also far from a “flat” character. He’s got several dimensions to his personality including humour, spirituality and a fascinating history. He’s interesting, intelligent and has depths that “flat” or stereotyped characters simply don’t have.

Of course, creating a character who’s not “flat” is easier in a series than in a standalone novel. However, there are also plenty of standalone characters with several dimensions to their personalities. For instance, Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is a standalone that features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grow up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They’re raised in an abusive and dysfunctional home, but they react to it quite differently. Mason takes advantage of all of the opportunities he gets, earns a scholarship to law school and becomes the commonwealth’s attorney for Patrick County. Gates, who’s got superb athletic talent, squanders his opportunities and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, money he gets from his mother, and the occasional drug deal. One night, the Hunt brothers encounter Wayne Thompson, Gates’ rival for his girlfriend. Thompson and Gates Hunt get into an argument and before either really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thomspon. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both men. Then, Gates Hunt is convicted for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother to help get him out of prison. When Mason refuses, Gates threatens to tell police that Mason killed Wayne Thompson. When he follows through on his threat, Mason Hunt is up against a murder indictment. The characters in this standalone are all rounded characters with more than one dimension to them. Even Gates Hunt, who’s portrayed as the antagonist, isn’t “all bad,” or really stereotypical. Mason isn’t portrayed as all good, either, and we see several dimensions of both men.

I’ve only had space to mention a few things that can make characters off-putting enough for the reader to lose interest. What about you? Are there any traits in characters that make you stop caring?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Promises.


  1. I'm not sure I can explain why, but I totally stopped caring about Kay Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell's main character. I don't go there anymore.

    Some of my favorite main characters these days are the male protagonists in series by Craig Johnson, C. J. Box, and William Kent Krueger.

  2. Patricia - I know what you mean. There are some characters I've given up on, too, and couldn't easily explain why. And thanks for reminding me of the good work that Johnson, Box and Krueger are doing :-).

  3. I chime in with Kay Scarpetta. Not nice and she's proud of it.

  4. Margot, I'm very grateful to be mentioned in such company. Thank you.

  5. Patti - I love your pithy way of putting things :-). You put your finger on it with deadly accuracy.

  6. Martin - Oh, my pleasure; more than well deserved.

  7. In a stand alone book, I may not "like" a character, but as long as he/she is a real person, I finish the book. But I rarely read a second book unless the main character is someone I can trust.

    Or to put it otherwise, I stop reading a book, if the character is so boring, I just cannot continue. And I stop reading a series if the protagonist either doesn't have any compassion, or is not concerned about social justice.

    You always make me think, don't you, Margot.

  8. Rayna - Your blog always makes me think, too. I know what you mean about the difference between a series and a standalone. One's often more willing to finish a standalone unless the protagonist is very boring or is horrible or there's something else seriously wrong with a book. A series, though, is different. Most people want series protagonists to likeable or to have something appealing about them. In your case, compassion and social justice are what are important to you. I think everyone has those characteristics that are particularly important...

  9. A thought provoking post!

    As you and Rayna have rightly pointed out, it depends a great deal on whether the book is a part of a series or a standalone.

    In a standalone; I'm usually very tolerant of rough sketches as long the plot remains tight. "And then there were none" did not have a single character that was sketched in detail except perhaps the killer ;) We're told about their pasts on a "need to know" basis. Even then together they create this tense web of a plot which is outstanding.

    In a series; the recurring character and/or setup is the sine qua non. So a detailed sketch becomes much more important.

  10. Wonderful post as ever, Margot, and I apologise for not commenting here of late. (And thank you very much for the mention.)

    I enjoyed "Red Dragon", the first of the Thomas Harris series, because of its interplay between Lecter and the protagonist (Will?) - although Lecter was awful, their mental duel gave the book a level of interest for me that was totally lacking in The Silence of the Lambs and the awful Hannibal, as the character just became more and more extreme and hence two-dimensional and boring.

    Flawed characters are more compelling to read about than "100 per cent goodies" or "baddies", it is quite a challenge to find books in the crime fiction genre that "get" characterisation and its importance to the reader, I do so agree with your post. Thank you.

  11. Amey - Thanks for mentioning And Then There Were None. It's a good example of a standalone where fully rounded characters are not as important, perhaps, as the plot and the suspense level. And yet even in that novel, we learn enough about the characters so that they are not simply one-dimensional "cardboard cutouts).

    I think you're right, too, that what we expect from characters in a standalone - even a very strong standalone - is not the same as what we expect in a series.

    Maxine - It's so nice to have you back :-). And it's my pleasure to mention your excellent blog. I agree with you that the interplay between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon makes for a superb level of tension and Lecter, terrible as he is, is a fascinating character.

    Your larger point, too, is well-taken: characters become boring when they have only one or a few facets to their personalities. Readers lose interest and stop caring about them when that happens. As important as plot is (And it is! It is!) characterisation is critical. Without it even a strong plot won't keep the reader interested.

  12. I'm with you on the stereotypical characters, they make me crazy. Also, if the characters are acting a little too typical. For example, I'm a fan of Elizabeths George's Lynley, but after his wife died in the books, I've stopped caring so much for him. He's seemed to jump off the deep end. I just didn't see why he would go to such an extreme, I'm hoping to begin liking the series again but that's turned me off for now.

  13. Clarissa - You bring up an interesting point. When characters act in "cookie-cutter" ways instead of authentically, this can put the reader right off. It's as though the author isn't paying close attention to the character and letting the character act in natural ways. I'm glad you brought that up.

  14. Margot, you are really too kind. My blog is just random musings, and it they make you think, it is more a reflection of who you are than of what I am saying.

    And yes, compassion and social justice are two things that mean a lot to me. Most people have them in some measure, in a lot of people there is a lot more that is dormant and a crime might just thaw it out. Or as in the case of that character in Gallows View, proximity to crime may just temporarily erase both and lead people to doing things they otherwise never would.

  15. Rayna - *Blush* How nice of you :-).

    It's interesting, isn't it, how something traumatic like a crime can bring out the worst or best in people. You've really got something interesting there and you're right about Gallows View. There's a terrific example of a character who just gets blinded, so to speak, and forgets both compassion and justice... Hmm... I feel a post topic coming on ;-).

  16. Great post! Down with Mary Sues and characters so flat that they can slide under doors!

  17. Eeleenlee - I just love your description! Yes :-). Characters so flat they can slide under doors! I am going to remember and cheerfully steal that line ;-).

  18. @ Margot - I can never get over how you take chance comments, and make an entire informative blog post out of it. You really are amazing.

  19. Rayna - *Blush* You are far, far too kind. Really.