Readers care more about gender than I realized. Recent mystery forum discussions revealed some startling proclivities: Some women read only male writers. Other women often avoid female writers and protagonists because they fear they’ll fit into certain stereotypes. As a novelist, all of this concerns me. Especially considering four of the top five current fiction authors on the New York Times bestseller list are men, and that Oprah Read more →
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’m at that point in my new story where I need to settle on some character names. I’m writing a series, so the recurring character names are decided (like them or not). For others, I often grab a moniker for the moment and keep going if the writing is flowing, then go back and search/replace when the perfect name comes to me. Sometimes, the first name that comes to me is the right name. I love it when that happens.
I have also changed the name of main characters after writing the entire novel. I hate when I have to do that. After thinking about a character as “Sierra” for six months, it’s hard to let go of that identity. And now it’s hard to remember her new name when I’m discussing the novel, which is embarrassing. But I changed it because I had too many female characters whose names ended with “a” (the schwa sound).
What I need now are bad guy names, and I feel stumped. So I’m having a contest.(My brother asked me to name one of the antagonists after him, so one down, two to go.) One of the bad guys runs a strip club and various other sleazy deals, and the other is the ultimate con man/misogynist, who puts on one face for the public while engaging in the worst sort of behavior behind the scenes. That’s all I can say without giving away the mystery.
I’ll give away two copies of THE SEX CLUB — one to each of the top two submissions. You can post your submissions in the comments section, which could be fun for others and/or e-mail them to me, using the link on the right.
True character-naming story: When I was writing THE SEX CLUB and needed a name for the psycho bomber lady, I picked Ruth because it’s short, strong, and Biblical. I picked Greiner because it’s the name of a street near my house. Three years later, I was horrified to learn there was a woman named Ruth Greiner who is an avid mystery reader, leads a mystery book club, and is on the same popular mystery list serv that I am. She got wind of the name through a review of THE SEX CLUB in Mystery Scene magazine and e-mailed me to express her displeasure. (So don’t submit one of your relative’s names, unless he/she never reads anything but Mad magazine.)
Even if you don’t enter the contest, share your “I wish I could take it back” character-naming story!
How do you feel about writers who don’t describe their protagonists? How much description do you want to see?
I saw this question on a list serv today, and it hit home because I asked myself this same question yesterday. It occurred to me that there is almost no discussion of my protagonist’s physical appearance in my new novel. In the first Detective Wade Jackson mystery, readers get a brief description of Jackson from another main character early in the story. But in this installment, there is no opportunity for that. So anyone reading Secrets to Die For who did not read The Sex Club has no idea what Jackson looks like— except that he’s taller and heavier than a suspect who is coming at him.
I feel compelled to fix this. But there are limited options. He’s not a man who will look in a mirror and assess his appearance. I may be able to sneak in little bits of physical information here and there, but it will not amount to a full description early in the story.
As readers, how do you feel about this? Are you okay with coming up with your own visualization? What happens when you picture a character as blond, blue-eyed, and stocky, only to learn 100 pages into the story that he’s tall and dark? Is it disturbing, or do you just roll with the image?
As writers, how do you handle describing your protagonist if you don’t have another character who can do it for you?