'I have to like the main character in a novel in order to enjoy reading it,' a friend once told me. 'If I can't like them, then I need to empathise with them, at the very least.'
A while back, I read Peter Høeg's novel 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow,' and it got me thinking about whether a protagonist should be likeable. You see, Smilla Jaspersen, the main character in Høeg's novel, isn't. Not to me, anyway. She describes herself as a bitter shrew; her personality's as cold as the Greenland ice on which she was raised. She professes to love her neighbour's son, six-year-old Isaiah, but she's not above hitting him. Her feelings for the man she refers to as 'the mechanic' rarely rise about the carnal, despite her alleged tenderness for him. And yet Smilla is a mesmerising character. She's possessed of an acerbic tongue, she's mistress of the quick riposte, and she'll fight dirty with screwdrivers or whatever implement comes to hand. I neither liked nor empathised with her, but she made a fascinating character to lead me through the book.
Let's look at other fictional nasties...
Unpleasant characters abound in novels, of course, but they're often cast as the antagonist, with a thorough comeuppance served up at the end. Let's look at some novels where the lead character, as opposed to the antagonist, is very definitely someone with a nasty streak. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley springs to mind. Charming, amoral and ruthless, surely he's far most interesting to the reader than the dull Dickie Greenleaf? Or what about Scarlett O'Hara? She's vain, she's selfish and yet isn't she compelling, especially when compared with the vapid Melanie Wilkes?
Moving to historical fiction, Mary Saunders from Emma Donoghue's novel 'Slammerkin' is shallow, self-serving and impulsive. She trades her virginity for a ribbon and uses the infatuated Daffy Cadwallader without compunction for her own ends. Tom, Scarlett, Mary; we may not like them but we can't ignore them, and all three fascinate and compel in equal measures.
The lure of the antagonist
Some books have the reader rooting for the villain simply because their counterparts aren't likable either. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' for school, I loathed Angel Clare with a passion. He's supposed to be a moral man, with Christian values, but his behaviour stinks. Sure, he's a product of Victorian England, but could he be any more hypocritical? Rejecting Tess for not being a virgin immediately after informing her he's not one either? Alec D'Urberville may be the villain of the book but at least he doesn't pretend to be the good guy. In that, if nothing else, he's far more honest than Angel Clare ever is. I know which one I prefer.
Why is it the bad guys are often more interesting? Take Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca', as well as Rebecca herself. Don't these two women possess more fire, more spirit, than the second Mrs De Winter? What about 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'? Doesn't Hyde draw us in far deeper into Robert Louis Stevenson's novel than Jekyll ever does?
What's behind all this?
I believe many of us harbour a dark side. Most of us lead law-abiding lives and are decent enough people, but I suspect we like to examine life's grittier side occasionally. From a safe perspective, of course. Why else would crime and horror novels be so popular? We're like children, scared yet thrilled by tales of witches and warlocks; there's something compelling about the seamier side of life. For me, that explains why often it's the bad guys in novels who grab the limelight.
What about my friend, though, who prefers her characters to be the good guys? For me, fascination can replace empathy, but for her it's clearly different. I suspect the reason here is because many people choose to identify with the lead characters in a book, to walk in their shoes, experience life through their eyes. So it makes sense that we'd want to like them, because for the duration of the book, we become them.
What do you think?
What's your take on this? Do you root for the good guys or do you prefer your fictional characters more flawed? Leave a comment and let me know!
Following his excellent review of 'The Two Faces of January', I'm delighted to welcome back Michael Nutt as a guest blogger. Today's post will be a review by him of Elmore Leonard's 1987 novel 'Bandits'. The floor's all yours, Michael...
Snappy dialogue and interesting characters...
Written during a period when Elmore Leonard was turning out some of his very best crime fiction, 'Bandits' (1987) is written with the author's customary ease and economy, full of his snappy dialogue, a cast of interesting characters, and a plot that picks up pace along the way.
The story begins with a corpse, in a place where death is everyday business. We are in a mortuary in New Orleans and two men are working on a road traffic victim. The scene is set with some rapid fire dialogue between the two men as they work on the body. Or rather while one man works on it, while the other watches evasively. The evasive one is Jack Delaney, just turned forty, a one-time fashion model who ended up doing time in Angola penitentiary for burglary, and now working for his brother-in-law Leo Mullen who got him an early release through the rehabilitation programme by offering him a job as assistant in his funeral director's business.
It is clear from the start that Jack has not put his criminal past completely behind him. First there is the body that has appeared that day on the mortuary slab, and which Jack recognises as an acquaintance from his wild years. Then there is the revelation that he has been socialising with red-headed Helene, another character from his criminal past.
A scathing comment on US foreign policy
Soon Jack is on his way to the leper colony in Carville in the company of a nun, Sister Lucy, only the body they are going to collect in the hearse is not a dead one. And Sister Lucy, in her Calvin Klein jeans and heels, appears very well-attired for a woman of the cloth.
This is a slow-burner by Leonard's standards and the story takes a while to ignite. The plot has a conventional, linear structure - very different to the author's usual cross-cutting chapters that leap between characters and locations before bringing all the strands together. Written in the late 1980s, Leonard draws on the wars of Central America of the late 20th century - the conflicts in Nicaragua, Honduras - as a background to the contemporary story, introducing themes of responsibility and morality that have been lacking in Jack's life. There is more than a touch of bitterness in the way Leonard remarks on the USA's involvement in those dirty little wars in Central America. He does not spare his American readers the uncomfortable truths of US foreign policy and how it supported the most vicious and inhuman parties in those struggles. Leonard is angry, very angry, as he writes of the atrocities the US financed in Nicaragua in the name of anti-Communism.
An unlikely wild bunch
The bad guys are often the most interesting characters in Leonard's crime novels and he keeps us waiting to meet the villain of this story. Bertie - Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz - is an officer who served the deposed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and he has a personal interest in the girl that Jack and Lucy have taken out of Carville. He is on their case, while visiting the States to raise funds for his army of contras still fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lucy's father, a wealthy oil tycoon, could be just the man to help him. It is almost a third of the way into the story before we meet Colonel Diaz and we are left in no doubt about what Jack and Lucy are up against. The Colonel has the CIA and some smooth operators working on his side and Jack is going to need help from some people from his criminal past, so he calls on a couple of bandits: ex-cop Roy Hicks, whom Jack knew in Angola, and old lag Tom Cullen, recently released from a 27 year stretch into the care of a nursing home. This unlikely wild bunch have a chance of redemption, of using their criminal skills for the force of good against evil. But with their criminal backgrounds, will they stay as the good guys or succumb to the temptation of more than two million dollars?
Take a trip in Jack's hearse
I love this novel's New Orleans setting, the familiar street names and locales. I love the anecdotes that Leonard drops in to fill out the main characters' back-stories, each one a short story in itself. I love the way that Leonard will follow a plot thread and character for a while before leaving it and moving off in an entirely different direction. I love how this leaves the story open to so many possibilities, not just with the bandits' quest to steal the Colonel's funds but also in their relationships with each other. The story builds to its climax, with some twists and turns along the way, raising our anticipation like watching a car bomb primed to go off. It ends as it begins, with a live body being transported in a hearse. But we have come a long way in between, and so too have his characters. 'Bandits' is not up there with Leonard's best novels, but it is a thoroughly good read. Take a trip in Jack's hearse: it is a journey worth taking.
More about Elmore Leonard
Thank you, Michael, for another great book review!
A few facts about the novelist Elmore Leonard. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved to Detroit in 1934, where he spent much of his life. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns. He went on to pen several crime and thriller novels, the best known of which include 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch'. Many of these, including 'Bandits', have been made into films and adapted for television.
During his lifetime, Leonard was awarded various prestigious literary prizes, including the Grand Master Edgar Award in 1992 from the Mystery Writers of America, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 2008. Elmore Leonard died in 2013, aged 87.
The second in a great series
Readers of my blog will remember that I interviewed bestselling novelist Robert Bidinotto a while ago. (Click here to read the interview). The post mentioned Robert's second novel in the Dylan Hunter thriller series; I enjoyed it so much I decided to post a review for this blog. First, let's have a taster of the plot. Read how Robert describes it on his website:
At his cabin in the Allegheny National Forest, Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods have taken a month off to heal the wounds—physical and emotional—from their ordeal at the hands of twisted psychopath Adrian Wulfe. Annie, in particular, has been struggling with the aftershocks of witnessing the man she loves nearly die at her feet. She is frightened by the prospect that Dylan seems to seek or attract violent confrontations wherever he goes. She can’t accept the prospect of such a life with him. So, to build a future together, Dylan promises Annie that he’ll abandon his violent ways. But ideological zealots and Washington’s political elites have conspired to terrorize and plunder the hard-working locals. These victims have no protector against the bad deeds of the powerful and privileged. Except for one man. A man as ruthless and violent as they. A man committed to absolute justice. Because Dylan Hunter cannot walk away—not even if it costs him the woman he loves . . .
A well-structured plot that avoids cliches
Powerful stuff! 'Bad Deeds' is a fast-paced action thriller, packed with more twists than a pretzel, and far juicier. It's a Formula One race to the end, with a break in the middle to deliver some back story about Dylan's father; this slows the pace down nicely, allowing the reader to draw breath.
The book is well-structured, with the prologue and epilogue seamlessly balancing and complementing each other. The latter, as is to be expected, teases the reader with a hint of the next book in the Dylan Hunter vigilante justice series. Throughout the action, Robert Bidinotto takes care to develop his characters further, via Dylan's efforts to incorporate the woman he loves into his life and Annie's struggles to deal with the psychological scars inflicted on her in 'Hunter'.
On now to the themes of the novel. I found the portrayal of the environmental extremists refreshing in that they weren't depicted as the good guys. It would have been so easy (and clichéd) to have written the environmentalists as saintly champions of America's green spaces and the fracking companies as ruthless pillagers of Mother Earth, but the author doesn't go down that route. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm reluctant to say too much, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the book is an interesting read for its perspective on green issues, although there's so much more to the story than that. Robert Bidinotto has conducted extensive research into this area, which is of keen interest to him; 'Bad Deeds' examines some of the complex ethical questions involved. The results may surprise you.
What about the romantic elements? Robert ensures they don't intrude on the action, but act instead as a counterpart to the fast pace of the rest of the book. I'm not a fan of romantic fiction, but Dylan and Annie's relationship is portrayed sensitively, without losing sight of the fact the novel is, first and foremost, an action thriller.
The bar has been raised to a great height...
As an animal lover, I was delighted that Robert delivered on his promise to me when I interviewed him! His gorgeous black and white cat, Luna, does indeed play a pivotal role in the plot - without her, events would have transpired very differently! I hope we'll read more about Dylan's feline sidekick in future Hunter novels...
Robert Bidinotto says on his blog how concerned he was to produce a sequel to 'Hunter' that would live up to his fans' expectations. I'd say he has more than delivered the goods; the number of 5-star reviews the novel is racking up on Amazon.com indicates other readers agree with me. With 'Bad Deeds', Robert Bidinotto has raised the bar even higher for himself and I don't doubt he'll rise to the challenge with the next Dylan Hunter novel. Not much pressure, hey, Robert?!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post! To find out more about Robert and his novels, go to www.bidinotto.com. He's an interesting guy!
I'm delighted to welcome novelist Daryl Rothman to my blog! Daryl has written this guest post, The Ties That Bind: Five Traits Shared by Great Suspense Novels. Over to you, Daryl!
You just can't put it down...
Have you ever experienced that with a book? Most people have, if they’re lucky. Of course, I’ve lost myself so thoroughly in a great novel that I’ve run late for important engagements, snuck in reading time at work, and read entire days away. And it’s glorious. But have you ever stopped and considered what kinds of books most commonly ensnare you in this manner? Any great book can do so, but for many people, suspenseful, psychological thrillers comprise the most usual suspects. The brilliant, beautiful psychotherapist whom we learn will kill her husband; the murder of a 12-year-old girl which evokes haunting memories for an Irish detective; the fiendish plans and eventual execution of murder and attempts at moral justification in mid-19th-century Russia; a brilliant but profoundly troubled computer hacker who finds herself in the crosshairs of espionage and murder in high-society Sweden; a fledgling FBI agent tasked with culling secrets from an imprisoned murderer before another serial killer strikes again. What are the common traits that keep us on the edge of our seats (or upright in our beds, biting our nails as we compulsively, helplessly turn page after scintillating page)? Why can’t we put these books down?
I am a bit leery of authoritative, definitive lists—the greatest beauty of great books, after all, is that they belong to the reader, gifted by talented scribes, suffused with memorable characters and compelling details, plots and stories, but belonging to each reader nonetheless, to see, feel and absorb as only she can. So any list detailing traits of great books is inevitably incomplete. But after considering my own favorites and other perspectives, I have compiled here a list of 5 traits I believe many great suspense novels share, and offered examples for each.
1. Front-row seats
Great suspense novels confer upon readers the ultimate of vantage points. Often, though not always, this manifests via dramatic irony, wherein the reader is privy to something important that a main character(s) is not. In "The Silent Wife", we come to know—and are directly advised that the protagonist does not know—that she will commit murder. Top authors are not coy with their readers (despite the plot twists we’ll discuss a bit further down)—they display complete trust in us, bestowing ringside seats to the show. In Dostoevsky’s classic "Crime and Punishment", we again learn early of nefarious plans and so the suspense resides not in discovering Raskolnikov’s murderous contemplations, but in whether and when he shall indeed execute them, and what the ramifications will be. Foreshadowing, when properly presented, lurks in this dark realm as well, gilding our gaudy seats with golden touches of spine-tingling hints and anticipation.
2. Clockwork universe
In most good books, and most assuredly in great suspense novels, the clock is ticking. Sometimes literally: 24 hours until the bomb explodes… one week before the mob returns for their money… 60 minutes (naturally) before the sands pass through the hourglass in the witch’s castle. Even if it is not stated so explicitly, there is almost always a race against time in one way or another—some decision or action which must be made or taken within SOME limited time frame in order to achieve or avoid a pretty significant result. Many of the best thrillers have a trigger action, that act or decision which, whether intentional or otherwise, sets the gears of the story’s plot in motion.
Whilst not a novel, the recently concluded and highly-acclaimed drama "Breaking Bad" offered a perfect example of a trigger mechanism: when Walter White makes the decision to cook and sell meth, he triggers a series of dramatic, violent, often bizarre but in the end seemingly inevitable events. This article does a great job elaborating, and is a worthy primer on many of the principles of the clockwork universe in fiction. But back to the suspense novels, and the matter of ticking time: "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" both mine the murky depths of serial killers, and the reader gets and feels the urgency. The protagonists must find the killer before he claims his next victim. A literary clockwork universe also is tinged with notions of destiny and fate—tension is heightened as the reader is imbued with the realization that the protagonists are not only on a collision course with the antagonists, but that the odds seem somehow preordained against them.
3. Unbelievably (yet made believable) high stakes
We must not only care about the protagonists, but also about what they care about. A protagonist may be richly developed, beautifully-textured and wholly relatable… yet if all she cares about is whether the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, this is probably insufficient to compel the reader to keep turning pages. Ah, but if the prolonged winter has adversely affected her spring garden, in which she was growing a hybrid plant whose seeds contained the cure to a worldwide pandemic, suddenly the stakes have soared higher. In “Lambs” and “Dragon Tattoo” the stakes are pretty darn clear—stopping a serial killer is about as intense as it gets—but even taut tales of murder are often suffused with additional, more nuanced stakes.
"In the Woods" is the story of an Irish detective also on the trail of a killer, but the pursuit stirs embers of a long-repressed trauma directly connected to the crimes he’s investigating. Throw in an intense and ultimately ill-fated romance with his partner, and the stakes for Detective Ryan are not only high, but layered and complex: can he cope with the awakening memories which begin to plague him anew?... can he and Det. Maddox navigate the murky waters of their smoldering relationship while remaining focused enough to solve the deepening mystery? But it’s more than just really high stakes—the higher they are, the more intense or even fantastical—the greater the burden on the author to make them seem plausible. This is accomplished not merely by creating stakes which resonate with a reader’s notions of possibility—for so often we read to escape the constraints of reality and limited possibility—but by creating a world wherein it seems possible—even inevitable—for the characters.
4. Twists and yet more twists
A great thriller has twists—usually lots of them. But if we are to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary works of suspense, it again comes down to execution (sometimes literally). J But the great ones don’t steep their manuscript full of twists merely for the sake of it, or for (almost always) fleeting shock value alone. The best twists knock us on our backsides but we gladly bolt back up, smiling: thank you sir, may I have another? They knock our socks off and we revel in the surprise yet perhaps even gently chide ourselves for not seeing it coming but also loving that we didn’t. Fowles’ "The Magus" is replete with dizzying, imaginative twists, yet when taken in composite they thread together in the tapestry of the psychological playground (god games) the author has presented. I’ve had the privilege of guest posting for speculative fiction author and owner of the highly-acclaimed "Helping Writers Become Authors" website K M Weiland, who wrote a fantastic post on how to write killer plot twists. Note her exhortation early on: poorly executed twists are not only ineffective but can be counterproductive and even insulting. The great ones get it right.
5. When all's said and done, CHARACTER
This is so obvious as to become all-too-often-neglected. There is a tendency when pondering literary genres to become so fixated upon the various traits and devices that define each. To wit, this post. Here we are dissecting common threads which weave through great suspense novels. And this is good and well for a discussion of what we love to read and why, but a danger lurks for the scribe who loses herself in these considerations. An obsession with assuring one has included all requisite components and devices can result in a work that is gimmicky and trite. Look at me, I’m a suspense novel—did you see all those great twists? Eh? Eh? Meh. The great thrillers unveil these components seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly (I say seemingly because great writing is hard work) and takes us for the ride of a lifetime. But even for those which have nailed every other great element, if they fail to deliver memorable characters, the work will ultimately ring hollow, fall flat. Strong characterization is incumbent upon any great story, even more so, I’d argue, in great thrillers, for even though conventional wisdom may suggest successful orchestration of all other suspense elements perhaps minimizes the requirement of epic characters, the opposite is in fact true: terrific plotting, harrowing danger, cliffhanger twists all harbor the potential to outshine the characters themselves. But the best suspense novelists understand their work will be all the more riveting, resonate more enduringly, if all the components complement, rather than compete with one another, and strong characters are an essential ingredient. What do you think of first when I mention "Silence of the Lambs"? A haunting psychological expose on the twisted minds of serial killers and the inner-workings of the FBI? Maybe. But more likely you think of him, the wonderfully puerile Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Or her, the sublimely vulnerable but fiercely courageous Agent Starling. Characters. They are the living vessel through which all the other elements find voice.
Lists and resources
When these and the myriad additional traits of great suspense novels come together, it is something to behold. Symphonic. Scintillating. Evoking and provoking. More than anything, one hell of a read.
Here are some great lists of terrific suspense novels:
What do you think? What are some of your favorite suspense novels and what were the traits that grabbed you the most? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Thank you, Daryl!
I'd like to thank Daryl Rothman for this terrific blog post. Daryl is a father, author, early childhood leader and public speaker. He received his BA from the University of Illinois, MSW from Washington University and is a licensed clinical social worker. His website features his blog, short stories, publications, guest interviews, and news about his novels. He has guest-blogged for K M Weiland, CS Lakin, Joanna Penn, Firepole Marketing and published flash fiction for The Hoot and flash fiction for Kal Ba Publishing. Daryl may be found on Twitter, Linked In and Google+. From early in life he harbored three aspirations: become a father, become a writer, and become a ballplayer for his hometown Cardinals. He is blessed to have achieved the first, is happily continuing his journey regarding the second and he will neither confirm nor deny holding out hope for the third.