This question comes up dozens of times while I’m writing a novel. Almost every character is given two names (and sometimes a nickname), but what you do you call them most consistently? First name or last? Does their gender and/or role in the story dictate which treatment they get?
Neil Placky’s excellent guest blog on The Kill Zone recently got me thinking about the nature of mystery series, police procedurals in particular. The series seem to fall into three camps: protagonists who are always linked to the criminal case being solved, cops who are sometimes linked to the case at hand, and detectives who rarely have an emotional connection to the case they’re working on. I’m not as widely read as I’d like to be, so my examples here are broad.
In the first category, the TV show Murder She Wrote comes to mind (as well as most cozies). In the third category, there’s John Sanford’s long-running series about Detective Lucas Davenport and Ridley Pearson’s series about Detective Lou Boldt. Neither detective hardly ever has a personal stake in their cases’ outcomes, yet they are favorites of mine—and millions of other readers.
My own series (and many others) falls into the middle. But even when Detective Jackson has a link to the case he’s solving, it’s not an intimate first-person connection.
I know many readers like emotional connections, but the question this raises for me is credibility. If your protagonist (whether a cop, an FBI agent, reporter, or private detective) is surrounded by people who can’t stay out of trouble, does he or she start to seem suspect? If every crime he/she solves is somehow personal, does your series start to lose credibility?
I’m thinking about this now because I’m plotting my fourth Jackson story and wondering how important the personal connection is to readers.
Writers: Do you connect your protagonist personally to his/her cases? Is it working for you?
Readers: How important is the personal connection? Can a series lose your respect if the protagonist has too many personal connections to criminal cases?
I’ve been thinking about characters lately, mostly about how to make them more compelling. So I asked: Who are my favorite fictional police detectives? I came up with Lucas Davenport (John Sanford’s Prey series) and April Woo (Leslie Glass). I thought I might find commonalities that attract me as a reader. Instead, I discovered that they are very different.
Davenport seems to have no family, no parents or siblings that he is connected to in any way. April Woo has parents who are very present in her life. Davenport has a lot of money and doesn’t need to work. Woo has money problems (mostly because of her parents). Davenport knows how to play the political game to get what he wants out of the department. Woo is incapable of playing politics and lacks social skills in general.
So why do I like both these characters? Perhaps because they are both independent and unconcerned with what others think of them. They are also very good at their jobs. But I’m not satisfied yet, and I’m still thinking about this. So who are your favorite characters and why do you like them so much?