Wednesday 6 October 2010

Unpleasant characters in a mystery

It’s fair to say that a good many modern crime novels seem to be populated with an array of unpleasant characters. But even where you have a book with (say) an appealing detective, it’s quite common to find that the characters you dislike are in the great majority. But is this inevitable?

In a whodunit, you need to have a range of people who might conceivably have committed the murder. Years ago, common motives were inheritance, and the difficulty of obtaining a divorce. Plenty of books featured people who seemed amiable, even though they turned out to be murderously inclined. The culprit in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is but one example.

But nowadays, motives are (I suggest) more often rooted in character flaws than perhaps was the case in the past. And perhaps this means that the characters themselves are unlikely to be attractive, at least below the surface.

It’s an issue that vexes me with my own books. One of my recent novels therefore was based on the premise that an appealing person might have a good reason to commit a terrible crime. But more often, I find that almost all my suspects have their dark side. This is true of The Serpent Pool , for instance. And I do wonder about the views of readers. Is it enough to have a small number of appealing characters? Or do you like the (seemingly) nice guys to be in the majority – and, if so, how do you respond when one of them turns out to be a murderer? Or does it really not matter, as long as the story holds your interest?


Anonymous said...

Martin - What an interesting question!! As a reader, I actually think it's unrealistic to have too many appealing characters. A small number is enough. That said, though, I don't like it if even the unappealing characters have absolutely no redeeming qualities. I think even unpleasant characters should have more than one dimension. As a writer, I like to write both kinds of characters. I like my characters to vary, because I believe that makes them more interesting and authentic. Of course, people have faults, and some have some very dark sides. I like that kind of character, too.

seana graham said...

I think that social mores make it harder for an 'ordinary' person to commit a crime in a novel. So I think motivation becomes either psychological or sociological. In California, the downturn of the economy, the upsurge of gang culture, transcience, and drug culture prove fertile ground, which is a bad thing for living here, perhaps, but leaves no shortage of stories!

Sarah Hilary said...

It's an interesting one, Martin. I like all my characters with some darkness, but I love the misdirection some authors provide in the clean-cut character turning out to be the dirtiest. However, sometimes it can be hard to stick with an over-flawed hero; I found the relentlessly sarcastic main voice in Gillain Flynn's Dark Places unreadable (even though it was firmly established upfront that she had an excellent reason for being this way). While reading Mo Hayder's latest two - Ritual and Skin - I was utterly hooked on the darkness of the hero, but afterwards it did feel as if there weren't ANY sane people on the police taskforce. Having just read the CWA nominated Rupture, by Simon Lelic, which has 15 separate voices telling the story, I reached the conclusion that I need a strong lead character whom I can trust to tell me the truth, albeit within the limits of his/her knowledge. Holmes could never have told his own stories - seeing him through Watson's eyes was why it worked so well, because we trust Watson emphatically. Anyway, these were my first thoughts on reading your interesting post - it's made me think about my current project, so thank you for posting.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I usually write a lot of pleasant people into my books...but that's what I write.

When I'm reading, I like to see some of the dark sides of people--even nice people.

I like being surprised and I tend to be more surprised when a "nice" character murders than a mean one. :) But if they're all a little unpleasant, I'd be surprised then, too.

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

Martin - there is an award for you on my blog. But please do note that there is no obligation to accept it and/or pass it on to any other blogger.

SY said...

as long as I have a story that keeps my interest, the characters don't have to be nice

Anne Gallagher said...

I like when a seemingly nice character commits the murders, but all the while you think (while reading) it's the really nasty guy.

Also, I think if the story's well written, it won't matter who the bad guy is.

Fiona said...

I'm not much good at critical analysis but I'll have a go..... I prefer to have plenty of likeable characters - if there are too many 'dark' ones I get bogged down in the doom and gloom (maybe this is why I enjoy cosy crime so much!) but I do find it a greater shock when an apparently normal character turns out to be the murderer. OTOH, this, to me,is far more lifelike than having a large group of people every one of whom is hiding a guilty secret...though how lifelike a crime book plot really is for most of us ordinary people may be begging the question!

OT - I really wanted an excuse to say how delighted I was to find your next book announced on Amazon this morning; I don't know how long it's been up but I have pre-ordered it to be a very slightly late birthday present to myself :)

Dorte H said...

What a great question!

In a few years my expectations as a reader have changed a lot (have I really grown up?) from wanting mainly pleasant characters to prefering more life-like characters who have a healthy mix of good and bad sides. If the writer lives up to this expectation, I think the murderer can be any of these realistic characters.

It is difficult to say how much this has influenced my writing, though, as I have changed from more serious manuscripts to cosy mysteries. Unlike Elizabeth, I can´t say I have a large number of pleasant characters in "The Cosy Knave", however. I think the majority are quirky and cranky, and I have wondered whether it was too much, but my first beta readers both said they loved my characters and even worried about what would happen to them.

Maxine Clarke said...

Nobody is actually that pleasant. It is what they do about it that counts! I do think that we can decide what face to put to the world, and many people go through their whole lives being nice, polite and civilised, while thinking dark, maybe even evil, thoughts underneath. Or perhaps they are plagued by demons and have to suppress them. This is the art of the crime writer, teasing this out, for example by showing the one person who was unable to keep all this fermentation hidden......

Deb said...

In our "anything goes" culture, it must be hard to come up with non-psychotic reasons to have "decent" characters commit murder, so I have a great deal of admiration for you and other contemporary mystery writers who try to give their characters understandable motives. I don't mind if characters are good or evil (or shades of both)--but I do like them to be consistent. I don't like a character who has been presented as thoroughly good to suddenly commit an unmotivated murder and I don't like an evil character to spontaneously stop and pet a puppy.

Martin Edwards said...

I am delighted by these comments, which have certainly got me thinking. Very interesting opinions indeed. I will perhaps return to this subject before long.
Meanwhile, greetings SY, good to hear from you.
Margot, I do agree there need to be redeeming qualities.
Seana, nice point!
Sarah, hope the writing goes well.
Jose, thanks for your kindness.
PW, me too.
Fiona, I didn't know it was on Amazon yet! Thanks for letting me know.
Dorte and Elizabeth, I agree it depends on the type of story. The lighter the story, the fewer the horrible characters, or at least very often that's true.
Maxine, very well put. I agree.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, consistency is, I agree, crucial. A character can and will develop, but not in a puppet-like way, if the reader is to retain belief in the story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As in life, I like some nice people to share the trip with, some complex ones to ponder, and a nasty fellow or two to watch from afar.

Paul Beech said...

Hi Martin – Personally I enjoy crime fiction of all sorts from tales of suspense such as P M Hubbard’s (remember him?) through murder mysteries such as yours to high-octane thrillers such as Simon Kernick’s. And it seems to me that the optimum nice/nasty balance between characters depends upon the type of story and the author’s style. What works well in a Declan Hughes probably wouldn’t in a Kate Ellis and vice versa. Nice if we can have a couple of appealing characters to identify with, though, such as Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett. Nice also, with a mystery, if we’re told enough about the suspects to bring a criminal profiling approach to solving the crime as well as attention to clues. The whydunnit (psychological/motivational) aspect is surely nowadays as important as the whodunit.

But reading through the fascinating discussion above, I had a thought – could there be scope for a new type of murder mystery, the ‘who’llsnuffit’, where the future killer is known from the outset and the burning question is who will the victim be? What do you think?

Regards, Paul

Martin Edwards said...

Paul, I once wrote an essay for an OUP book about the 'whowasdunin' type of book. Believe it or not! Maybe I should talk about this on the blog one day.

Unknown said...

I agree with Margot, it's an interesting question.

Most of the killers in my mysteries are serial killer and yet, I try to make them friendly and likeable. They should be. Most serial killers in real life are nice guys.

I once saw a movie on TV where a FBI agent when undercover and became friendly with a killer to get him to confess. As the movie went on, we began to really love the killer as did the FBI agent who fell in love with him. In the end, he did confess and the police stormed in and we see him pleading with her, asking her to forgive him. I actually wanted him to go free - I was so attached to him.

That movie aired over 15 years ago (I can't even remember the title) but the killer who was the nice guy stuck with me. I think it could be a powerful tool if done right.