Sunday, July 25, 2010

Strange Thoughts About Characters - Part 3

 Guest blog by Marc Strange
Continued from last week and

“Classic” murder mysteries are formal exercises. There are rules. Rules of course are made to be broken, but if you do, you’d better have a good reason. And you still have to satisfy the essential nature of the piece.

One of the cardinal rules of a whodunit is that the murderer must show up early in the story. This is essential for a satisfying resolution. You can’t drag in a character three-quarters of the way through and then reveal them as the killer. This is unfair to the reader. Mystery readers are trying to figure out who the killer is before the end. Good writers not only establish the character early, they give enough information that a discerning reader could if they connected the dots, figure out the answer.

Of course the clever mystery writer doesn’t want that to happen; they want the reveal to be a big surprise. To make it a surprise, they must present the reader with a number of plausible alternate suspects, each one of whom has a motive compelling enough to warrant a murder.

This is where the character and background of the victim come into play. Murder investigations begin with examination of the victim’s life – last known contact, last known whereabouts, personal connections – gradually building up a timetable and a map, and along the way gathering a roster of suspects: Who did the victim offend? Who did they threaten? What did they have worth stealing, or worth dying for?

If this was a motiveless crime, a random killing, the work of a serial murderer, then you aren’t writing a whodunit, you’re into procedural territory. I will grant that in some cases the intended victim wasn’t the person murdered. It could have been a case of mistaken identity, it might have been part of a plot to hurt, or implicate, or or humiliate, or simply pay back the real target of the crime. No matter. For whatever reason they were killed, something or someone in the life of our victim was responsible for their death.

How your searcher goes about his or her business is up to the writer. My sleuth, Joe Grundy, tends to be dogged and not especially insightful, mostly following his nose. At the other end of the spectrum would be the Sherlock/Poiroit type who sees all and remembers everything, no matter how small.

Some detectives are cynical and think the worst of everyone, some are romantics and consider solving the crime to be a quest for justice. Sometimes a detective is forced by circumstance to become involved, to clear their name or the reputation of someone they care about. Some, like the absolute classic private eye, Raymond Chandler’s “Philip Marlow”, follow a trail no matter where it leads, endure, survive, and keep on going, simply because it’s the job they hired on for. To do less would be unprofessional, and somehow dishonorable. But however they go about the search, the detective must stay the course. The longer they follow the trail, the more they learn about the victim, the longer the list of suspects grows, until the real killer becomes only one of many, hiding in plain sight, slowly fading into the background. Then, if you’ve done your work properly, the reader almost forgets about them, or dismisses them from consideration.

Until the end. That’s where you want the reader to say, “Of course! Who else?”

Marc Strange is the author of the “Joe Grundy Mysteries” Dundurn Press. His first novel, Sucker Punch, was short-listed for the Ellis Award as Best First Novel, 2008. The second entry, Body Blows, won the Edgar Allen Poe Award as “Best Paperback Original” for 2010. The third entry, Fat Lip, is scheduled for 2011.
Follow Me Down, the first entry in his new series, the “Orwell Brennan Mysteries” ECW Press, was published in May of this year, and two more are on the way, Woman Chased by Crows, scheduled for 2011, and a third entry, as yet untitled, scheduled for 2012.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Strange Thoughts About Characters Part 2

 Guest blog by Marc Strange
Continued from

Certain stock characters crop in most “classic” mystery novels of whatever sub-set. They’re necessary: a sidekick, an old friend, or a new friend, an abrasive cop, a confidant, a reporter, a bartender, a vicar, you know the list – unless your story unfolds entirely inside the thought processes of your sleuth, he or she is going to talk to people. And if your mystery is also part of an ongoing series of novels, some of these stock characters will be coming back for repeat appearances. So, however familiar and recognizable they may be in a general sense, and how essential to the formal requirements of the mystery, they must be brought to life as distinct individuals.

In the Joe Grundy Mysteries I have a large cast of supporting players who work or visit the Lord Douglas Hotel where Joe is Head of Security: Joe’s sidekick, Wallace Gritchfield, “Gritch”, has been a fixture at the “Douglas” for a very long time and knows every inch of the place. Leo Alexander, the hotel’s owner figures prominently. There is a singer and pianist who presides over the hotel’s jazz lounge, a crime reporter, a police detective, the hotel’s assistant manager, the concierge, a bartender, and a dozen more. The Lord Douglas is a big operation employing hundreds of people. It’s inevitable that they keep turning up, and important that each one play some part, large or small, in the unfolding of the story.

In addition to the recurring characters, your sleuth will come into contact with new people at every turn. Solving a mystery requires the steady accumulation of information, much of it gathered through the questioning of strangers. How the novelist approaches the problem is a personal matter (Ross Macdonald, writer of the “Lew Archer” mysteries, used the Q&A to the point where it was almost ritualistic), but whether you treat your characters as portraits of “real” people, or as formalistic constructs, the undertaking is the same, somehow you must lift them off the page, make them resonate and come alive for your reader.

To bring a character to life you can describe their physical type, what they’re wearing, a peculiarity of speech; you can place them in a setting that echoes or contrasts with who they are; you can play with their attitude toward the sleuth – antagonism, banter, seduction, reticence, or resentment. But don’t describe too much. Be specific. Pick one thing that sums up the character, make it clear, special to them, reinforce it subtly from time to time, but don't beat your reader over the head with it. Allow them to fill in the blanks. A big part of the joy of reading is bringing the imagination to bear. Some writers take it to extremes, describing a character as male or female and pretty much letting it go at that. But whether a writer is generous or chary with the descriptions they will at some point have given an indication, however small, of who the person is, something that allows the reader to form a mental image.

We all have our own way of breathing life into characters. I started out as an actor so part of my pleasure writing mysteries is that I get to play all the parts, good guys, bad guys, men, women, I get to say the lines, work out the conflicts, play the scenes in my head. Another writer might build a personality through observation, keep notes and reminders, eavesdrop on conversations, collect interesting names, or even grab photographs of faces. How you do it is up to you, but it is vital that the people you create be “real” to you. The more you can get inside them, the more “life” you give them.

Finally, although it seems obvious, make sure your secondary characters are distinct from each other. Just as you wouldn’t have two characters named “Joe Smith”, you don’t want two characters who both use the same idiosyncrasy of speech, or have the same attitude toward your sleuth. Each character you create no matter how brief their appearance in the story, must have specificity, and personality.

The “classic” murder mystery is a journey of discovery,  just like any other quest novel. It begins with a need to find something, and along the way people will help or hinder, and add to the sum of knowledge even when they’re trying to hide the truth. Each one of these characters is important to the quest, otherwise they shouldn’t be there. Make sure that they not only serve their function as plot points. Make them breathe.

Next week, Part 3 of Strange Thoughts About Characters

Marc Strange is the author of the “Joe Grundy Mysteries” Dundurn Press. His first novel, Sucker Punch, was short-listed for the Ellis Award as Best First Novel, 2008. The second entry, Body Blows, won the Edgar Allen Poe Award as “Best Paperback Original” for 2010. The third entry, Fat Lip, is scheduled for 2011.
Follow Me Down, the first entry in his new series, the “Orwell Brennan Mysteries” ECW Press, was published in May of this year, and two more are on the way, Woman Chased by Crows, scheduled for 2011, and a third entry, as yet untitled, scheduled for 2012.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Some like it hot...

... but I'm not one of those people.

It's 33C -- feels like 40 -- and I'm hiding out at Starbucks with an iced espresso drink thinking of Alaska.

My best friend's mother is currently sailing up the Inside Passage. I am envious, but I can't admit it to my friend because at least I've been there done that. She hasn't. Wants to. So I keep my mouth shut and take another sip from my iced drink.

Mind you, the only place I like ice and snow is at a safe distance. Up close and personal -- especially if shovels are involved -- doesn't appeal to me at all. Standing on the deck of a cruise ship, shivering a little from the cold wafting off the ice, listening to the thunder of a glacier calving, that's my idea of good time.

Not all my experiences with glaciers were that comfortable. On a family trip out west my sister and I talked our parents into hiking up a mountain with the promise of hot drinks and a great view from the tea house at the summit. Dad in his deck shoes, Mum in her slingback sandals, and Joey and I in our flip-flops were passed on the trail by hikers in boots and thick socks. Then we got to the tea house (a shack) to find out it was closed for the season.

At least the view was still open and as magnificent as advertised.

On the way back down we decided to take the glacier route. Our path was supposed to take us above an ice field. It didn't say that the path was extremely narrow and high up. My mother suffered from acrophobia. There was no way that she was going to take that path. Fortunately there seemed to be a lower route.

Route is the operative word. It wasn't a trail. It was a swath of loose stones between an overhang of ice and a field of snow. It was an avalanche waiting to happen. Then the stones disappeared and we were walking through snow.

Ever hear the story of Robert the Bruce who, during a dark time in his career was holed up in a cave with a spider who determinedly kept rebuilding her web. She taught him to never give up. This trait has been handed down the generations, from Bruce to Bruce. Where my mother got the stubborn streak is anybody's guess.

Dad in his deck shoes -- used-car-salesman-white if I remember correctly -- Mum in her slingback, leather-soled sandals, Joey and I in our flip-flops hiked across the ice and snow all too aware of our precarious situation. However, we could see the path we were supposed to be on ahead. Soon enough we were safe and sound. The snow ruined Mum's sandals but she dined out on the story for years.

Looking out on the heat-hazed day beyond my air-conditioned sanctuary, I remember that day fondly.