“You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and then give it up.”
By Max Everhart
It’s the economy, stupid.
That’s an old joke about the most important aspect of politics, and it’s a joke that I, as a committed, but albeit unsuccessful capitalist, happen to agree with wholeheartedly. (Alas, mystery writers, even damn good ones like me, don’t earn a ton of bread. C’est la vie).
Really, I couldn’t give a toss about politics. Don’t have time to care. Plus, liberals and conservatives alike make my scalp itch, which is just as well as I have a toddler to potty-train and English classes to teach and long walks to go on and Earl Grey to drink. In short, I’m busy. I mean, windows don’t just stare out of themselves, do they? And who if not me is going to organize my Netflix queue? Water my garden? Nuke more Pop Tarts? (Seriously, somebody get on that; I’m hungry.)
To my thesis (drumroll, please): when it comes to mystery novels, it’s the characters, stupid. Characters, particularly the protagonist and the antagonist, trump all. I, like a lot of readers, enjoy an ingenious plot (The ABC Murders and The Maltese Falcon spring to mind), and a strong sense of place (think James Ellroy’s depiction of 1950s L.A. in The Big Nowhere). But what’s more important is the presence of strong characters, especially the hero who should be formidable, and flawed, and resourceful, and dynamic, and. . .you get the idea. Tall order, eh?
Maybe. But here are some quick and easy tips for creating memorable characters, along with some examples to check out.
TIP #1: always make sure that characters are driving the plot, not the other way around.
As readers, we are going to gravitate toward interesting, complex, flawed, likable characters, and if those are present in a book, the pages will turn themselves. Too, if the writer has created an interesting character, said character will naturally get involved in interesting situations, and there’s your plot. So, writers, if you’re writing scene after scene with a character, it’s just not working, chances are it is the character’s fault.
EXAMPLE: C.W. Sugrue, a hard-as-nails private eye in The Last Good Kiss. Talk about interesting characters. Hired to track down an alcoholic poet, Sugrue ends up bouncing from bar to bar, state to state, and never mind. Just read the opening of this book, and you’ll see what I mean:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
TIP #2: reveal something good about your villain and something bad about your hero.
Why? People are flawed and complex, and your characters should be, too. If ever you’re stuck, ask yourself the ultimate characterization question: what (or who) does my character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way?
Example: Chili Palmer, a shylock in Get Shorty. Notice how Elmore Leonard reveals not only the origin of Palmer’s nickname, but he also adds a new layer of characterization to the protagonist.
Ernesto Palmer got the name Chili originally because he was hot-tempered as a kid…Now he was Chili, Tommy Carlo said, because he had chilled down and didn’t need the hot temper. All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife’s car to make the payment.
TIP #3: begin and end chapters with your characters doing (or saying) something interesting.
This could be a provocative image or a bit of snappy dialogue. Readers want to be pulled into the story, particularly at the start and end of a new chapter, so make sure to keep them turning pages. The best mystery and crime writers are adept at this, especially Daniel Woodrell, one of my favorites.
Example: Sammy Barlach, an ex-con in Tomato Red. Here is one of the the best openings of a crime novel ever.
YOU’RE NO ANGEL, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat. . .
If you’ve got more tips for creating memorable characters, or you have a favorite character you want to mention, leave us a comment.