Friday, April 6, 2018

Character Archetypes: The Comfort Food of Writing

Which crime fiction archetype do you find truly essential to the genre? Which would you like to see retired for a while? 

Note: Instead of a Jungian interpretation, I'm going for something crime fiction related, e.g. introspective gumshoes, screaming police superiors, alcoholic ex-investigators, reluctant detectives, that sort of thing. 

by Paul D. Marks

Which crime fiction archetype is essential?

Archetypes are a funny thing. On the one hand they’re familiar. They allow us to get into a story quickly and relate to the characters. We know them, without having to be told a lot about them, at least initially. You know, the dreaded info dump. It’s like comfort food only comfort characters. So that’s a good thing. On the other hand, archetypes can become hackneyed and clichéd. And therefore lifeless and dull. Predictable. So it’s a fine razor’s edge (my favorite book btw) that one has to walk to keep that from happening.

For me the noir anti-hero, who’s been kicked to the gutter and comes back for more, is one of the essential crime fiction archetypes. I think it’s something that most people can relate to on some level – we’ve all been down, though hopefully not to the extent of a noir protagonist. And I think this is one of the things that draws people to crime fiction in the first place – we want to root for the underdog (even if we know s/he’s doomed as is the case with most true noir “heroes”). We want to believe that people can be redeemed and can come back from the lowest point and fight for justice, even if they never achieve that justice. It’s the human struggle that we all understand.

David Goodis and Jim Thompson are two of my favorite noir writers. Okay, neither is very original or out of the box, but good is good (and Goodis is Goodis). And both often write about people on the skids, who often don’t stop skidding and even if they do they never really get back to a place of normalcy. Even Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is someone who’s constantly fighting to maintain his place in the world. In Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham, Stanton Carlisle truly falls from grace (if he ever really attainted it) and the ending of the book is much more noir than the movie. And so many more.


Which would I like to see retired?  

I can think of a few but the main one that bugs the $^%@&*# out of me is the investigator that magically pulls rabbits out of hats. They bombard us with red herrings and then out of nowhere they have some clue so obscure that Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, J. Edgar Hoover and the dataminers at Facebook couldn’t find it in a Google search (and, as we know, they know everything about everyone and everything) and – voila! – crime solved. I’m not sure if this is really an archetype or not, but it drives me nuts.

Along with the above and often in the same corporeal body is the busy-body amateur who’s always there when someone’s murdered! If you’re a neighbor or friend of this person, you better get all your affairs in order ’cause you’re probably not long for this world. I mean …come on… how can one person run into so many crimes in such a small space? Or if not a small space everywhere they go.

Jessica Fletcher comes to mind. Everywhere she goes: dead bodies. She’s the Typhoid Mary of Murder. One can understand this in the case of a cop or a P.I. as they deal with crime and criminals on a regular basis. But she’s neither. She’s a middle-aged, middle class (maybe upper class) woman in a small town, and a writer to boot (how many dead bodies have you come across in your writing career or any career if you’re not in law enforcement or a first responder?). I’m surprised there’s anyone left in Cabot Cove at all. Maybe she kills them so she has something to write about for her books ;-) . – And don’t get on my case about her, I’m just kiddin’ around. The show is fine. She’s fine. You’re fine…just as long as you’re not in the same state as her.

But, all that said, I think a writer can make any archetype work if they make the character fresh and don’t rely on trite character ticks. I used to teach a class on screenwriting and would tell my class that “character” is not smoking a stogie or picking their nose with a .38 (as a producer once put it to me), it’s their actions and the choices they make. So go ahead and have your character wear a deer stalker hat, but let them do something that grabs our attention and makes us say ‘wow’ that’s original.

What are the archetypes you think are essential and which should be retired?


And now for the usual BSP:

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:

Check out my website:


...And now for even more blatant BSP:

There’s still time to nominate for the Anthony Awards if you haven’t already voted. Ballots are due by April 30, 2018.

I have four stories eligible for Best Short Story and one book for the Best Anthology category:

“Windward” – Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (and as a note: this story has been selected by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler for The Best American Mysteries of 2018).

“Bunker Hill Blues” – from the Sept./Oct. 2017 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – now available to read on my web page: others you gotta buy – but, hey, support mystery publishers.

“Blood Moon” – from the Day of the Dark anthology, Wildside Press, Kaye George, editor

“Twelve Angry Days” – from the May/June 2017 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea – for Best Anthology. Edited by Andrew McAleer and me. From Down & Out Books.

Hopefully you’ll have time to check out my stories, as well as others. Thanks!



Susan C Shea said...

My current favorite candidate for the everyone-in-my-town-is-in-mortal-danger is the Father Brown of the British TV series, who practically gloats when another one bites the dust. If it weren't for Mark Williams' deliberate comedy approach to the role, I'd have given up long ago, but he puts on this gleeful grin, uses body English to show his delight, and I laugh. I am trying really hard with my French village mysteries to create plausible stories that don't all happen in the village but that tie back to it or my protagonist in some way. It's tricky, but I hope I am pulling it off. Catriona's Dandy Gilver series does it wonderfully well. Still, we need to be careful of falling into that Cabot Cove trap!

Paul D. Marks said...

Love that, Susan, the Cabot Cove trap. I'm sure it's difficult to keep coming up with plausible ways to off people, but I think your idea of trying not to have everything happen in the village but still tie back to your protagonist is a good one.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Right now I'm reading a Spencer novel. Ace Atkins has taken over Robert B. Parker's series. He's doing a good job. I love tough guys with a sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

Of course there's Midsomer, the most murderous county in England. You're so right about making your character unique, and it's not the affectations that do it! Sometimes, those things can actually throw one off--I remember watching the first Justified show, and Raylan Givens hat was so-so-much that I was initially put off--but then the character turned out to be fantastic (to me). Same with Longmire and his jacket--but then the character turned out to be great. You started me thinking, Paul...excellent post.

Paul D. Marks said...

Jacqueline, it's always tricky when someone takes over another writer's character. Glad to hear you're enjoying Ace Atkin's take on Spenser.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Madeline. Sometimes you do have to give a character or show more than one shot. I have to admit I'm often not good at that. But then sometimes I'll come back to something later on, like a TV series that I'd blown off, and end up liking it. Other things just catch you right away and you're hooked, like on a drug. I remember (a long time ago) that's what happened with Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

lisa john said...

Hey Paul, funny, especially the guy pickin' his nose with the 45... haha

The busy-body who always just happens to be in the room, or nearby, when the body falls....that's one I could do without
That kids series Nancy-Drew comes to mind here. My nana has em for kids, but I mean, how many times can one girl and her pals just happen onto the scene of the crime...

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Lisa. As to the busy body in the room who seems to attract dead bodies, I guess just best to stay away from them before we become one of those bodies ;-) .