A post on on Salon about detectives said most characters “…fail to capture our imaginations the way a gritty detective with a bad attitude and a drinking problem does.”

It went on to say: “But even cops get boring after several decades of prime real estate on the small screen. That’s why we need shows about time-traveling cops (Life on Mars), clairvoyant cops (The Mentalist, Medium), teenage detectives (Veronica Mars), obsessive-compulsive detectives (Monk), evil cops (The Shield), cops who work the system (The Wire) and many, many more.”

Does this premise apply to TV watchers only or has the need for quirky/morally-challenged/addicted cops taken over detective novels as well? Do cops have to have a “bad attitude and a drinking problem” or some other major character flaw to be interesting? What’s wrong with regular a good guy/gal who has a clear understanding of what’s right and wrong? A detective/FBI agent who is sober, thoughtful, and doing his/her best to balance work and family?

I say nothing is! In fact, my recurring Detective Jackson is such a character. He’s not perfect, but his flaws are minor. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t mind if she got involved with him. That’s not a bad test for whether your cop character is a good person: Would you want your daughter to date him? Would you be upset if your son married her?

Of course, there are the much-loved, loner-type Jack characters (Jack Reacher, Jack Taylor, etc.) who are fun to read, but in reality would cause sane women to run in the other direction.

Most of us read a mix of crime stories, from cozies to slasher/serial killers. But who are your favorite cop characters? Are they datable? Or are you attracted to those with “a drinking problem and a bad attitude”?

  1. Well, I have only one kiddo, a son, and I KNOW I wouldn’t want him dating Jack Daniels – it might be dangerous to his health! But no, in general, although those tortured heroes are fascinating to read about (or watch on TV/movies), I wouldn’t want my child to date them, nor would I want to be their BFF.

    Gayle Carline

  2. My two favorites are Jack Reacher and Alex Cross (very different characters and author writing styles, I know). Neither is close to the traditional cop mold, so I’d say that would bear out the theory that cops need to be a little different in order to be interesting. But i don’t think it has to be as trite as giving them telepathic powers or making them tortured. Bottom line is that I like them because the writing is good. Period. I don’t think you have to try too hard to create anything else if the writing is good.

  3. Personally, I think Blake Snyder summed it up best in his book “Save The Cat!” His point is that no matter what your protagonist is like (good, bad, or just badly behaved), we have to empathize with him or her on some level. They have to DO SOMETHING that connects with us on a gut level. Accomplish that, and we’ll follow that character anywhere.

  4. Wow. So, I’m more than a bit bias on this but I would hate a story with a cop who has a serious drinking problem. I greatly despise when cops don’t hold themselves to a very high standard… real life and fiction alike.

    My favorite cop character is absolutely Jack Carter from Eureka. While everything around him may be marvelous and quirky, he is really quite a normal guy. My favorite part about him? He is an honorable man, through and through. He does what’s right even if his ass is on the line for it.

  5. I liked your Detective Jackson in Sex Club. He was believably flawed. Like anybody. No, I don’t need an alcoholic schizophrenic psychopathic protagonist. I want an interesting character. That’s all.

  6. The allure, I guess you’d say, of the hard-boiled, edgy detective WAS the whole womanizing, hard drinking, tough guy persona, ala Mickey Spillane. And the stories of that era were pretty much all like that.

    Robert B Parker writes Spencer a bit different. Well educated, a tough guy when needed, tough guy friends, also when needed, no real problems with drink, or womanizing—just relationship problems, lol! Then you contrast the differences between his Spencer character to characters he’s written for today. For one, he writes Jesse Stone. What a difference, Jesse is a recovering alcoholic, and had his heart broken, is a womanizer, but a good guy cop. Sunny Randal, Parker’s female detective, has a moneyed background; she’s one of the good guys, with an ex-husband that’s involved with the mob.

    You have good guys like Booth on Bones, code of honor, a good guy fighting the good fight. He has some quirks. Mike Westin, Burn Notice, another tough guy, but a good guy, burned but still fighting the good fight—with some edgy humor—and relationship problems.

    I guess I’m saying that most characters we write today have to have some sort or quirk or a flaw that we want to see them overcome. No, a boozer isn’t one I want to see…

    Nice post ma’am.

  7. I like Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, and Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs for the same reason — they are characters who think deeply about their actions and motivations. They’re not always right, but when they’re wrong, they’re sorry. I would welcome both of them into my family in any capacity. (I guess I already have — the family inside my own head!)

  8. I enjoy reading about normally flawed human beings who work to overcome obstacles or put themselves on the line to fight for what they believe is right.

    Perfect characters are boring, but overly flawed heros are frustrating.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.