Plot over colour, every time
What makes a great mystery/suspense hero/heroine?
This is one of those pesky questions that seems straightforward at first blush, but then leads directly to other aspects. The question probably deserves at least a full month of workshops to kick around. And even then, the debate could continue indefinitely and any blog written one day on this might be reversed the next.
Mystery/suspense products are written to an expected formula, and of course the central character, the protagonist, the investigator, the solver of the puzzle, call him or her what you will, should be interesting and engaging enough to keep our attention in a sympathetic way.
And yes, that central character should be bright, possessed of a certain nobility of purpose, and ready, willing, and able to mix it up with the bad people using brains and brawn both to achieve the end result. After all, we are expecting the protagonist to solve the puzzle and resolve the situation to our satisfaction.
Key to the believability of the mystery is this main character’s persistence in the face of scant information, dangerous interference by other characters, law-breaking considerations, deliberate obfuscation, and other obstacles placed in his or her path. So this protagonist has to be motivated to carry on with the task whether he or she has been assigned it as a cop, hired as an operative by a client in distress, or has simply fallen into the situation accidentally. And such a get-the-job-done-at-any-personal-cost attitude is an attractive, likeable trait in the first place.
All well and good.
But a trend has developed that I personally find a bit ...tiresome. And that is, in terms of the protagonist’s back story, not character per se, one set of clichés has been replaced with another.
Consider the typical central character now in many British and Scandinavian police procedurals in particular. Tall, dark and handsome or pretty, perky and bright protagonists have been replaced with conflicted persons with invariably fouled up relationships of some sort, an aged parent in trouble, a disaffected son or daughter, addiction ‘issues’, and a defining physical challenge.
Considering the demographic of many, if not most, of the current writers in the genre, many of these ongoing surrounding situations of the central character make some sense.
But I fear I will soon come across a 400-pound hermaphrodite PI struggling with an addiction to sticking organic radishes up his/her nose, whose cross-dressing step-grandparent is about to be evicted from a tree house, and whose 30-something conjoined twin offspring from a former flawed relationship wish to leave steady employment with a circus to become financial advisers.
Hmm. Actually, maybe that would sell.
No, despite the very real need to make the protagonist interesting and engaging, in some cases his or her life situation as sketched can be a bit over the top. The main character can be as colourful, quirky, eccentric, new normal in his or her relationships, what have you, as the author cares to create. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter that much. The plot is the thing, with the protagonist having a well-founded motivation that drives him or her to get to the finish line.
Put another way, if the plot isn’t hanging together, it won’t matter how modernly colourful or ‘conflicted’ the main character is. That dog won’t hunt.
And in terms of overall plausibility, most often in real life some very ordinary people get caught up in very extraordinary events.
Roger White’s first crime novel Tight Corner was shortlisted for this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards in that category. He is working on a second in the series. His main character can be bad tempered and has ears that stick out.