Sunday, February 24, 2008

Notes from "Creating Memorable Mystery & Crime Fiction Characters" with John McFetridge

"We start with a theme, or a situation and then come up with the best characters to tell it." --David Simon, creator of "The Wire"

"I start with a character and think about the kind of situations he can be in."
--Elmore Leonard

So, pretty much opposite approaches, they can’t both be right? And yet they both are. Because there is no right or wrong, only interesting or boring.

There are a lot of good books about writing fiction and specifically about creating characters. Right now the Donald Maass book, Writing the Breakout Novel is the hot one. He’s also got Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Rachel Ballon’s Breathing Life Into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth has a lot of four star reviews at Amazon. Then there’s 45 Master Characters, Dynamic Characters, Character and Viewpoint, Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, and on and on. They can’t possibly hurt.

Other things to think about:

Series character – the big dilemma.

Publishers (and maybe readers) want series characters. The dilemma? It’s hard enough to create a character interesting enough for one book, let alone a series.

As Ben Yagoda says in the enclosed article from Salon magazine: There are, “2 problems: The main character, who is invariably romanticized or sentimentalized and who is always a combination of three not especially interesting things: toughness, efficacy and sensitivity. (When the writer resists applying any or all of these traits, the character ends up being bland.) The second is the very formulaic quality that lets a book be part of a series. Similar things happen in similar ways, which is probably as apt a definition as you'll ever find of how not to make good literature."

Flat and Round. Still relevant?

The James Wood article in the Guardian says, “In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster used the now-famous term "flat" to describe the kind of character who is awarded a single, essential attribute, which is repeated without change as the person appears and reappears in a novel... Round characters "surprise" us each time they reappear; they are not flimsily theatrical.” He goes on to say Forster is wrong.

Character vs. Plot.

This is another discussion almost unique to crime fiction. Probably again because of the structure of crime fiction – usually there’s a mystery and a solution. So, people ask, which is more important, the mystery or the characters? Sometimes books are described as plot-driven or character-driven. In fact, they need to be both. (Bill Pronzini article)

Setting as character.

In crime fiction we usually associate particular characters with the cities in which they work – Rebus is Edinburgh, Inpecter Gamache is Three Pines, Quebec, Kiney Milhone is Santa Teresa, California. They couldn’t just be moved around with no consequences because the way they interact with their setting is such an important part of their character and their stories. Still, we hear it often enough, don’t set your book in Canada. Even after the success of Louise Penny and Giles Blunt (and many others) we hear it. Is the problem the Canadian setting, or that not enough of the Canadian character is coming through? If you look at setting as something that can simply be changed, move it from Toronto to Buffalo, Muskoka to the Finger Lakes or Halifax to Boston without making any other changes then there’s something wrong with the story – not the setting.


John McFetridge is the author of the Toronto-set crime novel, Dirty Sweet, and the co-author (with Scott Albert) of the short story collection Below the Line. His latest crime novel, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (with many characters from Dirty Sweet) will be published in spring, 2008. Visit his website for more information.

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