14 March 2016

The Character of Characters

By Susan Rogers Cooper

As writers we create characters. We create good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. And I'm not talking about the quality of writing here. I'm talking about the character of a character. Personally, I need someone to root for. Some one I care about. Someone who's outcome means something.

Anybody ever read the book or see the movie of Paddy Chayesky's ALTERED STATES? I admit to only seeing the movie, not reading the book. And if the book was anything like the movie, I doubt I'll ever read it. Why? Because there wasn't a single person in that story I cared about. Weak-kneed, whiny wife and a husband I liked better as the monster than as the man. But that was the 70s and the anti-hero was all the rage.

I don't necessarily want a hero – I just want somebody who's real. A decent person put in an unreasonable situation. Someone who sees a wrong and feels a need to right it. A lot of us write characters whose jobs it is to do these things: police, PI's, lawyers, and others of us write about non-professionals becoming innocently involved in the carnage. I write both. I have one series with a small town sheriff, and one series with an amateur sleuth. The one major problem with writing an amateur sleuth is just how many dead people can she/he find before we begin to suspect a mass murderer? Personally, I always felt Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer.

And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to root for the bad guy. If the bad guy is a full blown person, and not a cartoon cutout of a villain. People kill for a variety of reasons, most of them stupid, but sometimes you can understand that stupidity. I've created bad guys that make you go “ick,” and bad guys that make you go “ah.” But either way they need to be real, and the only flaw should be one of character.

And must the victim be the villain? No. Maybe there was a reason he was killed. Maybe he did do something wrong, something that forced another person to this act of stupidity. But if we can feel for the bad guy, can't we also feel for the dead guy?

Hero, victim, murderer. The holy trinity of what we do. But with all three, above all else, they must be real. And there better be somebody, anybody, to root for.


  1. This is interesting to me because you've included the victim. And here's why that interests me: I have never been able to enjoy mysteries in which I feel a connection to the victim as a real and possibly innocent person. Their death disturbs me so deeply that the "game" aspect of the whodunnit evaporates at that moment, and I find the detective or investigator's intellectual pursuit of clues so cold as to be distressing. It even makes me feel upset with the writer, that they have destroyed this innocent character (I didn't say this made logical sense) for the sake of telling a story to make some money. I have no "solution" to this, and I am not saying it's a bad idea to make the victim an important and likable character.

  2. Jessica Fletcher, serial killer… I like that theory. Come to think of it, when Angela Lansbury would adapt that pursed-lip, disapproving ‘puss’, I felt like knocking her off a time or two.

    I watched a recent Dateline featuring an army couple. The husband arranges to have the wife killed (yeah, big surprise) by his overly loyal brother… really evil. While the wife was serving in the Middle East, she sensed her husband growing more distant as he sank into an affair with someone else. What really broke my heart was when she wrote him to ask if he’d be at the airport to pick her up. At that crushing moment, I could have hated him.

    Susan, I agree about wanting someone to cheer for. I’ve asked myself more than once why I like Hannibal Lector and oddly, I like him the least when he’s crude, not when he’s killing. How weird is that!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>