Thursday, July 2, 2020

On Muppets and Munters, by Catriona

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

Frank made a good point yesterday - about the hero of a romance needing to be attractive to the reader - and Susan did the same on Monday - regarding heroes and villains both being more attractive to a reader of thrillers if they've got some light and shade. A moustache-twirling rotter and a suave Superman are hard to care about throughout a book. 

(I'm writing on Tuesday, by the way. It's not that Cathy spoke drivel yesterday!) 

Inside the mystery genre, in particular in the cozy sub-genre, I think the likability (shouldn't that have an "e"?) of the victim is just as important. I wish I could remember who defined cozies as books where someone gets killed but no one gets hurt. That bangs the nail on the head and explains why a cozy murder victim, can't be too likable. We're not expecting to plunged into doom at the death. 

I went too far the other way in a recent book - STRANGERS AT THE GATE - and made up a woman who was (I think) one of the best characters I've written in years, then killed her in chapter two. I spent the rest of the book missing her and stopped halfway to see if maybe the story would work if she survived. It wouldn't, but I did make other characters remember her a lot.

Another lively sub-genre where likability comes up a whole lot is the one I call "Where's She Off To Now" (because of the women walking away on the jacket (see above). Note: I'm not disparaging these books. I've been writing one a year for nine years (see above again) and I devour other people's by the armload. Famous examples of the sub-genre - GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN - were widely slammed for having unlikable heroines, but I found both Amy and Rachel instantly appealing. I like fictional people who're a bit rubbish - mardy, hammered disasters with disintegrating lives. Especially if they're funny. 

As my darling agent, Lisa, has pointed out more than once, I do tend to make my Where's She Off To Now heroines fall in with heroes who're . . . not conventionally . . . what we would call . . . Put it this way: acid sweat, missing teeth and offensive tattoos have featured. I have no idea why this is. My husband, Neil, wants me to make it clear that it's not autobiographical. 

I've just suggested, in a wifely way, that if he wants that story to get about he need to stop grimacing in photos and try to look a bit less of a muppet. But I found a candid shot that shows what he actually looks, so we're good. (Locked down together for fifteen weeks now. It's going really well.)

But anyway, when Lisa was evaluating my manuscript of QUIET NEIGHBORS and read that a particular man had long, grey teeth like tombstones and never washed his jumpers, she knew wedding bells were set to ring. 

I'm going to finish off with some examples of characters who're awful but don't spoil the books they appear in, for me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this lot. 

  • Win, Myron's friend, in the Harlan Coben sports agent series. He's a straight-up sociopath. Dreadful man. Great character. 
  • Catherine, Roxanne's girlfriend, in Kristen Lepionka's PI series. Boo! Hiss! She's a terrible girlfriend and not much of a person otherwise. But I hope she never leaves town.
  • Hercule Poirot. I'm sorry. I'm perfectly willing to leave MWA, CWA, SinC, ITW, and turn in my Tesco Clubcard if I have to but I'm not backing down. I can't stick the fella. Miss Marple could crush him like a grape for nuance, likability, and tantalisingly absent back story.  My writing dream, in fact, is to be allowed to write a Jane Marple prequel set in the Edwardian England of her youth.  Never likely to happen, and I apologise for the faint air of prosperity gospel, but I'm just putting it out there. 


1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Agree about interesting and weird being a good match for either hero or villain. But special cheers for putting Miss Marple in the mix. She's nowhere near as "nice" as unwatchful readers might think, is she? Nosy, aggressive, thinks the worst of people...Yes, I like her best of all Christie characters.