May’s theme is all about characters, my favorite aspect of writing. All my stories are character-driven. Once I know my main characters, I can run with my plots and settings. Reading about characters who touch me or with whom I identify inspires me to develop my own.
I have lots of favorites, but these are some of the characters I visit over and over again.
The Sherlock Holmes stories have been analyzed in so many ways, but the key to their longevity and popularity is the friendship between the Great Detective and the Good Doctor. That relationship provides a model for literary friendships even now.
Friends should contrast
The friendship of Holmes and Watson works because they are so different. Holmes is the genius, who doesn’t run his household on anything like the conventions expected during Victorian times. He’s the cold, unemotional brain, the loner. Watson, on the other hand, has a variety of friends, marries, has compassion and interest in people as a doctor, did his duty in the army. He’s a very typical middle-class Englishman. Readers get two very distinct characters.
As I create characters, I check to make sure all of them, not just the major ones, are somehow different from each other. If I sense two are doing the same job in the story because they have similar personalities, I examine them to see if I need to get rid of one or give one a personality transplant.
A few months ago, I was working on the plots for the next novels after The Truth and Other Strangers. I realized a major character I’d planned to introduce in the second novel just didn’t work any more. I had developed several new characters who did his job for him. As fond as I was of this old character, I ejected him from my story. He wasn’t needed any more.
Friends should be compatible
Literary friends should be distinct but not so different that you can’t believe these characters are friends. Watson gives Holmes some normalcy, a support, and a sounding board for his theories. Holmes gives Watson adventure. The very proper Victorian doctor revels in the excitement of his friend’s escapades. This is clearly illustrated in the short story “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. Holmes proposes to break into a professional blackmailer’s house and destroy the items he’s holding over a client. Watson insists on joining Holmes and while standing guard, writes “I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when we were defenders of the law instead of its defiers.”
Each character gains something from the other that he doesn’t possess himself. This is true for romantic characters, too. A serious man is drawn to a woman’s humor. Or an outgoing woman is attracted to a thoughtful, introverted man. I’ve seen this work in my own marriage. I’m artistic and my husband is logical, a nuclear engineer. When I run into trouble with a plot, I give him my parameters, and he will come up with a logical progression for the story.
Friends should have flaws
If two characters live in perfect harmony, they will annoy readers, who have yet to find such perfect friends in reality. Watson writes about Holmes’s stranger habits, like firing a gun indoors to make a design of bullet holes in a wall and keeping his unanswered mail stabbed to the mantel. Watson irritates Holmes with concern for his health.
Sometimes, when I create a character I enjoy, I have to make sure I throw in some kind of flaw. Often I just need one character to be irritated by what I like in the first character. So if I have a very outgoing, talkative man, some characters might find him colorful, while others find him a blowhard. Same quality, different perceptions.
What are some literary friendships that served as a model for you?
Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Philip Marlowe. Kurt Wallander. Kinsey Milhone.
When fans talk about their favorite mysteries, they usually name their favorite detective, then mention their favorite stories featuring that character.
Mysteries, more than thrillers or suspense stories, depend on the appeal of their detective hero to keep readers coming back for more. Below are the characteristics I find appealing in a detective and try to include these in the crime-solvers I’ve written about.
As a reader, I want to feel like the detective is a friend I am accompanying on a case, someone I am excited to catch up with and learn about their latest adventures. The best description of how to create a detective, or any likable main character, I”ve heard comes from author Louise Penny, creator of Chief Inspector Armande Gamache, who works in the province of Quebec. You can watch the interview she did with CBS Sunday Morning.
If a detective’s major qualities are “strong”, “brave”, “handsome”, “beautiful”, “charismatic”, or any other in a long list of positive characteristics, I am likely to get bored. The characters I am drawn to aren’t the straight up, forthright detectives. I like the ones with quirks that break the typical hero mold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brilliantly combined the heroic elements with eccentric habits in Sherlock Holmes, making him far more interesting. He also tempered Holmes’s superhuman qualities with quirks that brought him down to earth.
A detective should never be correct all the time. That’s not human. But she also can’t blow a clue or a case so badly that the reader thinks she should go into another line of work. It’s a fine line. Readers will accept a detective making minor mistakes, if in the end, he solves the mystery. If he doesn’t solve the mystery, the ending still has to have some kind of satisfying pay-off.
In your opinion, what makes a great detective? Who are your favorites?
Victorian era — Especially Europe, but any location during this time period in which Sherlock Holmes could plausibly appear.
Golden Age of Hollywood — Since I love movies from the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s, I’ve already read a lot about the people working in the Hollywood studio system. A mystery set then would be fun to write.
Easter contains so many themes to inspire stories. Last year I wrote about how the drama of Holy Week could be adapted for a storyline. This year I wanted to focus on the theme of resurrection which leads to change.
Pretending to kill off a character only to have him return may be the most dramatic plot twist a writer can use. One of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories is “The Empty House”. In it, Holmes reveals to Watson that he didn’t die battling Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey’s resurrection as Gandalf the White is a major plot point.
Survival stories are a good way to use the resurrection theme without it seeming contrived. The extreme demands of a hostile environment on a character provide reasons for the character to reevaluate her life and, if she lives, to return to her old life changed for the better or worse.
In Inferno, a wealthy husband and wife and the husband’s business partner are traveling on horseback in the Mojave desert, looking for a mineral deposits. When the husband falls and breaks his legs, the wife and partner say they will send help. But instead, they mislead the authorities with a false trail, leaving the husband to die. The husband becomes determined to make it back to civilization and exact his revenge.
Because the husband is alone, we learn his thoughts through voice–over narration and can follow the change in his character. The actor portraying husband, Robert Ryan, is so skilled that his expressions and body language perfectly accompany his narration. (It’s also a great visual example of the writing concept “Deep POV” but that’s for another post.)