Characters We’re Drawn To

by Helen Currie Foster

Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

 

 

By Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or misunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

 

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.”

        

 

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Barkness:

“Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.”

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

     “When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around. Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.”

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

How Did She Think of That? And How Did Adamsberg Figure It Out?: Thoughts on Fred Vargas and her Policiers

by Helen Currie Foster

Fred Vargas by Marcello Casal/ABr, licensed under CC BY-3.0 BR. Via Wikipedia

Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Associationfor her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).

Click here to read the original post at Ink-Stained Wretches.

MysteryPeople Interviews Helen Currie Foster

helen-currie-foster-hotxsincAMW member Helen Currie Foster was interviewed for the MysteryPeople blog by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery. Helen is the author of the  Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, GHOST DAGGER, and THE GHOST NEXT DOOR.

Midwest Book Review calls the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries a 2018-10-10-helen-currie-foster-gng-cover“simply outstanding mystery series.”

Read Helen’s interview with MysteryPeople here.

 

 

 

 

Never Mind the Villain! Dorothy Sayers and Point of View – by Helen Currie Foster

AMW member Helen Currie Foster discusses how Dorothy L. Sayers handled point of view in her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in

NEVER MIND THE VILLAIN!: DOROTHY SAYERS AND POINT OF VIEW

at Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Click on the link and read her analysis–which is both informative and entertaining.