Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Gorgeous, handsome, and unbelievable

It’s always hard to find fresh ways to describe characters and situations. Sometimes tall, dark, and handsome is all you can come up with. Sometimes the only valid response to fear is heart pounding, stomach clenching, freezing, or fainting. I understand that. I just took a workshop in which we were challenged to come up with alternate ways to depict fear, loathing, attraction, bemusement and all the bevy of feelings our characters can have. It was hard.

But some things are so over-used that when I read them I wonder if the author has ever read another crime novel. I just finished reading a book that was really, really good. Great plot, well, written, good characters….except. Every single woman was “not just pretty, but beautiful.” Grippingly, stunningly, outrageously, truly beautiful. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really meet that many beautiful women. And of course each man was taller and better-looking than the next. Where were the average people? The ones with hair that didn’t quite measure up? The ones with eyes too close together or a nose that didn’t match the face? Or the ears that stuck out? Oh, there was one. The jealous girl. She got fat when she was older. That seems to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman in fiction. Yeah, it is in real life, too, but in fiction couldn’t she just get gaunt for a change?

Red hair and green eyes. I don’t know where thriller writers hang out, but it seems to be in places populated almost exclusively by red-headed women—preferably red-headed women with green eyes and breathtaking bodies. And these women don’t come any age but under thirty, and are gaga about the forty or even fifty-something male protagonists. And those males are built like gods. Look out, Ares! And they have chiseled features. Couldn’t one of these women occasionally have short legs or an overbite, or squinty eyes? Couldn’t the men be average-looking with only one or two amazing skills?

And then there’s the drunk, morose cop, or the drunk, morose detective, or the drunk, morose side-kick. Couldn’t one of these guys sometimes be so cheerful that it drives everybody around them crazy? Couldn’t one of them be happily married? To a woman who’s a bitch to everybody else, but treats him like a god? Couldn’t they have well-adjusted, friendly kids (yeah, I know that really is a step too far, but this is fiction!)

In cozies, why does every amateur detective have to be so perky? And why does she always have two boyfriends—the solid, kind, friendly one; and the bad boy that she knows she should stay away from, but…he’s irresistible. Why do they always have to have some job that involves the body—in particular, something to ingest? Couldn’t there be an occasional bank teller that solves crimes? Or an accountant? And while we’re on the subject of cozies, how do all those stunningly incompetent cops keep their jobs?

When I started my Samuel Craddock series, one of the driving forces behind writing an older, retired protagonist was the cliched “little old man” or “little old lady” who answers the door when the detective knocks. This character can barely make it to the door, shuffles along; she wears fluffy sweaters or he has food stains on his shirt…and he or she “must be at least sixty.” Do these writers know any sixty-year-olds?

I love to be surprised. One reason I love Robert Galbraith’s series (she’s J.K. Rowlings in another iteration) is that her protagonist is missing a leg—and the prosthesis gives him trouble. She knows she doesn’t have to describe his thunderous look when she has people glance at him and move away from him hastily. Or how about Joe R. Lansdale’s detective, Hap, whose father nailed him when he said, “he might fuck up a lot, but he’s no quitter.” Hap is pure goofball. He’s an awful person, and I love him.

As for plot devices, as long as the story is well-written, with interesting characters, I can put up with most plots. But there are a few plots I’ve had to stop reading for a while. The dead sister novel. I don’t know why, but there seemed to be a rash of those in the last few years. Maybe that was because a few years before that there were the dead brother novels. I guess everybody is somebody’s son, daughter, parent, or sibling. What I object to is when the sibling is the one who solves the crime—which happened years ago, and does by suddenly discovering…I once put down a book that was humming along fairly well when the protagonist “suddenly” decided to open a desk drawer in her dead father’s study—eight years after he died. I could put up with it if she had been away all that time, but she hadn’t. She was right there. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine leaving my dead father’s desk unopened for eight years after he died.

All the things I’ve mentioned come under the heading of “true to life.” And here’s where it gets tricky. Most crime fiction isn’t actually true to life. People don’t run across murders or plots to destroy the world or incompetent cops all that often. In order to make is seem “real,” the author has to go the extra step to make it look like real people are inhabiting their books…warts and all.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Great post, Terry. A lot of traps to avoid. You had me laughing at "Couldn’t one of these women occasionally have short legs or an overbite, or squinty eyes?"

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun post, Terry. Now I'm going over all my stories and characters in my head to see if any of them wear fluffy sweaters, etc. :-)

Karen in Ohio said...

Thank you! Only 3% of the actual population has green eyes, and nearly none of them "emerald" colored, but it seems as if more than half of fictional characters possess eyes of that particularly rare shade.

That single bit of description can drop me right out of a story.