Crime fiction has given the world so many great characters including Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock, Marlowe, Cracker, Jane Tennyson, Morse, Clarice Starling and magnificent bad guys including Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lecter and Amy Dunne. Even thinking about what’s gone before can be quite overwhelming when you start to create the characters for your novel. But don’t let all these great characters intimidate you. Instead, drill down into what makes these characters so memorable: what is it about that character that holds your attention through hundreds of pages of narrative. Is it that they’re ‘likable’? No. A character doesn’t have to be likable they have to be real, believably real. Ideally, that realness will make them engaging and pitch them into challenging circumstances we the reader don’t know if they will triumph over. Similarly, the antagonist in your narrative, shouldn’t be a moustache twirling panto villain. Instead, like the protagonist, they will have wants and needs that present to the readers as something readers can relate to. By creating a real need for your characters the readers will ultimately care enough about them in order to finish your novel.
The character’s wants manifest as the external characteristics of the story; the need as the character’s own internal characteristics. Their need is what will engage the reader more than the bells & whistles of an over-complicated plot that drowns all notions of character. It’s the readers identification and support for your character’s internal need that keeps them reading whether it’s a standalone or a series. This is what drives the narrative forward, the clash between what they need and what they want which will work to the narrative’s advantage when it is heightened by a strong antagonist challenging them at every turn.
I love Paddy because she’s real. The only female reporter in the newsroom in 80s Glasgow, she cops a ton of misogynistic flack but more than holds her own. She supports her family financially, works on a book in the garden shed and takes her mum on Catholic ladies’ nights out. She’s self-doubt and fearlessness in a green leather coat with an (empty) bag of lemon bonbons in the pocket.
One of crime fiction’s most memorable characters Clarice Starling (spoiler alert for Silence of the Lambs) endures in readers and audience’s minds for a reason: Clarice has unresolved issues from her childhood (the murder of her policeman father by robbers) which impact on how she lives her life. These issues and her need to make herself emotionally whole again impact directly on the choices she makes about everything. If we swap out Clarice Starling for another student at the FBI academy almost everything in Silence of the Lambs would change. It’s Clarice’s internal needs, her flaws if you will, that keep us engaged with her as a character and which impact on the want of the external story and allow us to see why she makes the choices she does. In order to graduate from the Academy she wants to impress her male boss, a de facto father figure, and in order to do this Clarice sets herself on a path to assist in the capture of Buffalo Bill. But along the way her past makes her bond with that most unsuitable father figure, Hannibal Lecter. A bond which, ultimately, results in her discovering and killing Buffalo Bill as he attempts to kill her. The balm for the part of her soul wounded by her father’s murder and the painful memories of her childhood, among the lambs readied for slaughter, is provided not by her male FBI boss, but by her bond with a cannibalistic serial killer. It is this unusual relationship which, on the surface might appear so incongruous which instead, due to the author grounding it in Clarice’s need to heal herself, becomes real and totally plausible. It is this unusual relationship that is many people’s over-riding memory of the book and film. As an absolute golden rule of fiction a character should never get what they want at the end of a narrative, but what they need. Clarice Starling is no exception.
In my next blog post I’ll look at whether you should plot your novel or wing it — Pants It or Plot It.