"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How much character do you want?

Now that I've got Are You There Erma? It's Me, Gayle on its way to immortality (or is that e-mortality), I can go back to writing the third mystery in my Peri Minneopa series. I took a few convoluted turns and twists before settling on the plot (see Thursday's edition of the Crime Fiction Collective blog for an explanation) and am now thisclose to completing the outline. I really like this story and can't wait to tell it to you.

Usually, I get so wrapped up in what I'm writing that I can't imagine another plot and think once this book is complete, the well will dry up and I'll never come up with anything else.

Not this time.

After this third book is written, I have an idea for a new series, with new characters. So far, I only have the location and the murder. I still don't know if my main character will be a man or woman, single or married, childless or a parent. I only know they'll be a sleuth and not a member of law enforcement. Probably no close friends in the law enforcement field, either.

The only thing I know for certain is they must be a character.

The lead must be someone a reader wants to follow through the story, at a minimum. It's hard to care about boring people in books.

A friend of mine mentioned she really liked Columbo. "You should make up somebody like that," she said.

I'm pretty sure I don't want to write Columbo, Part Two. But I started to think about the detective's signature style. To the world, he bumbled and fumbled and acted so disorganized it was a wonder he ever got a shield. And yet, he caught the killer every time.

Was he really that much of a scatterbrain? I mean, I never pictured him acting any differently, so when he went home and his wife asked if he picked up a loaf of bread, he'd touch his forehead and feel around in his overcoat and finally pull a loaf out of one of the pockets. Was that really him, or did he come home with a grocery bag like normal people? Was he secretly winking at us all, having his little joke?

More importantly, why did we believe in him? Millions watched him every week, knowing he'd solve the crime, and finding him completely endearing.

Here's my question: What if Columbo was a woman? I mean, maybe not in a rumpled trench coat and a cigar, but a woman in sensible shoes and outfits from Land's End, digging in her tote bag for a notebook and fiddling with her earring in thought. Would you find her endearing? Or unbelievable?

What if we changed her to be a young blonde wearing designer clothes and a Coach bag? How about adding some fake boobs and a squeaky-high voice? Could she solve a murder? Or is she too ditzy?

There are no right or wrong answers here, and I have no resolution. I'm just investigating the nature of characters and who we'll root for and who we'll roll our eyes at. I'd love to hear from anyone out there about what makes a character both believable and likeable.

1 comment:

Nick Belardes said...

I like the idea of a 30-something woman in a trenchcoat, any hair color, with an East Coast accent of some kind, chain smoker, and is a bumbling goof. Yet maybe she has some crazy mad skill, like she went to culinary school or something. Ha.

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