Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an Attitude

Instead of featuring a favorite book or story this month, I’m featuring a favorite character to fit in with this month’s theme about characters. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading the Nero Wolfe mystery series by Rex Stout and marveling at his creation of Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an attitude.

The first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934 and merged two traditions in crime fiction: the genius detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and the tough guy investigator from the hard-boiled school. Nero Wolfe weighs a seventh of a ton and rarely leaves his New York City brownstone for any reason. He raises orchids and eats gourmet meals, financed by the enormous fees he charges as a private detective. His assistant is Archie Goodwin, who does Wolfe’s leg work, going out to interview suspects, cajoling or conning them to come to the brownstone for meetings with Wolfe, and acting as bodyguard. Another of Archie’s chief duties is nag because Wolfe knows he’s lazy, although he won’t admit it, and needs someone to spur him into taking cases.

For most fans of the series, Archie Goodwin is the reason we return to the books. Nero Wolfe is an interesting character, but it’s Archie who makes the series come alive. Instead of being in awe of his employer, who he admits is a genius, Archie is more exasperated than impressed with Wolfe and his eccentricities, such as his rules never to leave his home on business or to vary his daily schedule for anything but the most catastrophic of circumstances. Archie makes remarks about Wolfe that I imagine Watson thought about Holmes but wouldn’t dream of putting in print. Archie also has a way of telling a story that draws in fans, as if I’ve met him at a diner and he’s relating his latest case to me.

Some of my favorites descriptions are below.

“…the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.

Too Many Cooks

While waiting for another detective, Saul Panzer, who is Archie’s best friend, to call in during a surveillance of a suspect, Archie gets worried when Saul doesn’t phone on time.

“At 9:15 I was sure that Alice Porter was dead. At 9:20 I was sure that Saul was dead too. When the phone rang at 9:25 I grabbed it and barked at it, “Well?’– which is no way to answer the phone.

“Archie?”

“Yes.”

“Saul. We’ve got a circus up here.”

I was so relieved that all he had was a circus that I grinned at him. “You don’t say. Did you get bit by a lion?”

Plot It Yourself

She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The tone alone was enough to stop anything and anybody. It was what you’d expect to come out of an old abandoned grave, if you had such expectations.

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids

Rex Stout wrote both novels and novellas. I think the novellas are generally better than the novels, but I have favorites in both categories.

  • Over My Dead Body
  • “Black Orchids” from Black Orchids
  • And Be a Villain
  • The Black Mountain
  • “The Next Witness” and “Die Like a Dog” from Three Witnesses
  • “Christmas Party”, “Easter Parade”, and “Fourth of July Picnic” from And Four to Go
  • “Poison a la Carte” from Three at Wolfe’s Door
  • “Kill Now-Pay Later” from Trio for Blunt Instruments
  • The Doorbell Rang
  • The Father Hunt

If you want to read the series, leave the last book A Family Affair for last. It has a plot twist that won’t have nearly as much impact if you read it before you finish the series.

Be Aware

For readers who like clean mysteries, the books do contain swear words, the first few books and the last few more than most of the others. There’s no other graphic content.

Who are some of your favorite detective sidekicks? Or what is your favorite mystery series?

How to Add Humor to Any Story

No matter what genre, if a few characters in a story display a sense of humor, that hooks me as readily as quirky characters or an intriguing plot. Click here for a previous post on the importance of humor.

Inserting humor into a story, especially one with a serious premise, can be difficult. I’ve discovered how to add humor to any story by knowing my characters extremely well and allowing their natures to dictate their sense of humor.

Assigning the Correct Sense of Humor

In my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow, my main character Rae is quiet, shy person. Most of her funny remarks are in her thoughts. Her uncle Hank is the family joker. He likes to tease relatives to show his affection, especially Rae’s father, his brother-in-law. This kind of humor seems appropriate for a laid-back, extroverted character. Rae’s father, on the other hand, uses sarcastic humor. That fits with his being a cop of fifteen years experience.

Rae jams in a band with two guys. Houston is from Texas. His sense of humor is exaggeration. When Rae asks him how he came to work in Ohio, he answers, “Like any good Texan, I was undone by a woman.” The other guy Chris is very reserve, and Rae finds it difficult to read his facial or body language. He has a very dry sense of humor that Rae only figures out when she sees an ornery glint in his eyes.

As I’m writing a scene, and a joke or humorous observation comes to me, I have to make sure I assign it to the appropriate character. Sometimes, I’ve had to discard something I think is funny because no character in the scene would make that kind of joke or comment. Writers don’t want to break the illusion of reality they create around their fiction. Jamming a joke in the mouth of a character just because I think it’s hilarious will shatter that illusion quicker than just about any other mistake.

My joker, Uncle Hank, can’t suddenly turn sarcastic because I want to dazzle readers with my wit. Or Rae’s father can’t tell a thigh-slapping joke when up until this point in the story he’s only used sarcasm. Readers won’t buy it, or even worse, feel cheated that a character has suddenly swerved from the personality they’ve come to understand.

For more on writing humor and comedy and what’s the difference, check out this very helpful article on “Almost an Author”.

What stories or shows do you think demonstrate how to add humor naturally?

The Art of Creating Character Names

Last week I wrote about the Golden Rules for naming characters. Today I will dig into the art of creating character names. Names can do more than label characters. They can be quick ways to define relationships, provide backstory, and above all, add another layer of reality to our fiction.

Choose Variety

In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I had to name a lot of characters in a small amount of narrative space. Selecting names from a variety of different languages helped me differentiate between characters and aided readers in keeping the cast straight. My story is set in rural, southeast Ohio. 90-95% of the population is descended from European immigrants. Having lived in the area, I knew what languages I could pick from to create believable names.

My main character is searching for her father and has three candidates. I had to make those male characters distinct. One way was to give them last names from three different languages, Irish, English, and Polish. So I came up with O’Neil, Carlisle, and Malinowski.

In the U.S., English names can signify old money. I chose Carlisle as the last name for a wealthy businessman. He has three children, so I stuck to the English theme and named them Allison, Richard, and Sylvia.

The sheriff got the last name Malinowski and also has three kids. To keep the two sets of kids separate, I needed a different naming pattern. I introduce the Malinowski family at a church lunch, so I chose Hebrew names for the kids, Aaron and Micah. The oldest is called Rusty, which I will explain below.

Names provide backstory.

For some reason I can’t recall, I liked the idea of the sheriff going by the nickname Mal, based on his last name, Malinowski. That forced me to examine why he preferred a nickname to his first name. He probably hated his first name. What would be an awful first name for a Gen X guy? Walter seemed to fit the bill. But his mother is a character in the story, and she seems like a genuinely nice woman. Why would she saddle her son with a name like that? Because it’s a family name. So I created Walter R. Malinowski IV. His oldest son is called Rusty. It doesn’t take much thought from the reader to figure out why.

By digging deeper into the reason behind my name, I developed my characters.

Names define relationships.

The wealthy business man is Jason Carlisle and he has a brother Rick. Jason also has a son Richard. That tells the reader, without me explicitly saying so, that the brothers are close. I have a scene in which Jason teases Rick about his dating life and that demonstrates the kind of relationship they have, but the names are a quiet code that reinforces the idea.

Side Note: I just realized I violated my rule of not having names look alike with Rick and Richard. I’ll have to watch out for that.

Your turn. What names have you created for characters? Why? What memorable names have you come across in stories?

Animals Inspiring Human Characters

Of course animals have inspired some of the most beloved characters in literature — Charlotte, Mr. Toad, the Cat in the Hat. I’ve never tried to create an animal character and have no plants to writet a mystery series where talking animals help their owners in their investigations. But I still find animals inspiring human characters and their descriptions.

Character Descriptions

If it fits the mindset of my point-of-view (POV) character, I can have her describe characters in terms of animals. She may be an animal lover or someone who grew up on a farm, or someone who wants to be a vet. Any of those interests would give her a convincing backstory for her to see animal traits in people. Such as:

  • “He opened his bullfrog mouth.”
  • “Her snake eyes darted to the door.”
  • “The only thing that distinguished Mr. Carlton from Dad’s prize boar was Mr. Carlton’s disheveled clothes and atrocious manners.”

An animal name is also a good way to give minor characters a “handle”, a summation of their appearance, so the readers get a quick image and move on with the story.

  • “The rat-faced man slunk along the bar.”
  • “Mouse Lady slipped up to me, apologized, and told me her boss was ready to see me.”

Revive Old Similies

Another way to let animals inspire your writing is to freshen worn out smilies. No one can use “as quiet as a mouse” without being considered a poor writer. But I can use something like “He wasn’t just as quiet as a mouse. He moved as silently as a mouse with ninja training.”

Character Behavior

My oldest loves nature documentaries. Watching animal behavior has inspired me to want to incorporate that behavior in my stories

For example, we watched a show in which a polar bear began to tear through a colony of birds that nest on the ground. He was ripping into nests and eating hatchlings. Polar bears can weigh over 1,000 pounds. The body of the birds wasn’t bigger than his head, if that. They couldn’t even begin to fight him.

So they annoyed him. The parents divebombed the bear’s head, flapping past his face., sometime delivering a glancing blow with their beaks. There were hundreds of birds. I don’t know how many participated in the defense of the nests, but they annoyed the bear so much that he left.

I can use that behavior in a variety of ways, like younger siblings getting on the nerves of their oldest brother, or elementary kids banding together to drive the junior high bully crazy.

Read more about animals as writing inspiration here.

How can animals inspire human characters in your writing? What animals have you known that have inspired stories?

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 2

I loved to read first-person stories. That’s why I write stories in first-person. But that leads to the tricky problem of how to describe the main character (MC) in show don’t tell. Here’s one thing not to do:

Don’t Use a Mirror!

A lot of first-time writers make this mistake. I did when I tackled my first novel at eighteen. The technique I used was to have my MC stop by a mirror and remark on his looks.

This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it’s been done to death. Second, it can feel bolted on to the story, as out of place in the narrative as sideview mirrors on a stroller. Third, it will slow or stall the narrative. For my readers to get a picture of my main character early in the story, I’d have to have her stop by the mirror just when I want them caught up in the action.

So forget the mirror.

Slip in the MC’s Description Naturally

In my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, the first scene is set in an abandoned children’s home, and my MC is alone. But I needed to give some clues to readers about who this person is. So in the second paragraph, I wrote “my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill.” Now readers know they are most likely dealing with a female.

After five hundred words, I switch scenes. My MC is working in a library and chatting with her boss. The first sentence is a line of dialogue “Is this yours, Rae?”. The female spelling of her first name confirms it’s a woman. Then I worked in a reference to her age and deposited a clue to the mystery at the same time.

Speaking to Rae: Barb glanced at [a smart phone]. “You were looking up the Ohio Revised Code?” Her eyebrows lifted above her bright red glasses. “When I was nineteen, the closest I got to reading the law was legal thrillers.”

I had to wait for the next scene to get in a more detailed description of Rae. I would have liked to put it in earlier, but it didn’t seem natural. In the next scene, Rae is chatting with Jason Carlisle, one of the men who might be her father. He is also a member of the library board and reminds Rae that she can bring a date to the staff Christmas party. Rae says she hasn’t been in town long enough to interest any guy. Jason says he’s surprised the guys haven’t found her. This gives Rae a chance to reflect on her looks.

“He was just being nice. At 5’11”, my height works against me when it comes to attracting guys. That and my face. My eyes are okay–dark chocolate brown with a slight tilt–but my face is too bony, all cheekbones and chin.

Now I’ve given readers enough information to imagine Rae.

How to Show Don’t Tell Ages of Characters

This is another tricky problem. Since my story is concerned with a nineteen-year-old looking for her father, I felt it was important to mention ages of people who might be her relatives. It helped readers see the characters and established relationships between characters. Here are two ways I showed and didn’t tell characters’ ages.

Slip it into dialogue

I used dialogue to reveal Rae’s age. In another scene, Rae is eating lunch with the sheriff, who is another candidate to be her father, and his family. His age comes out in a conversation with his mother. Discussing the time twenty years before when Rae’s mother was pregnant with her and disappeared from the county, the sheriff’s mother says to her son:

“At the time, all you thought about was going to college to play football. And everything else a senior has to deal with.”

Slip it into MC’s thoughts

When I introduced the characters of Jason Carlisle, I had Rae think:

“My gaze traveled up to the black sweater with a subtle swirling pattern and the million-watt smile of Jason Carlisle. That smile made him look a lot younger than thirty-seven.

But sometimes, you have to tell

If the age was important, and I couldn’t think of a better way to let readers know, I flat-out stated it. I dropped in the age and moved on.

“His six-year-old son was nowhere to be seen …”

“Mrs. M. swatted at the first-grader …”

These observations are still in the mind of my MC, so it might qualify as shown, but these aren’t as well-woven into the story as my other examples.

Okay, your turn. How do you show readers what your main character looks like? What’s a great example of how to describe characters in show don’t tell?

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