Friday, September 07, 2007

Characters and Cliches

Inspired by a post on Mark Billingham’s talk zone, I got thinking about this topic last night. There is a fine line with clichés, and crime fiction authors are often dangerously close to crossing it, for a variety of legitimate reasons. However, in many cases, I think that throwing out the ‘cliché’ classification is unfair.

What are some of the common traits of police officers in crime fiction? Bad at relationships. Unusual car/music/residence. Lone Wolf Syndrome – disregards authority and prefers to work alone, or with one standard sidekick. Constantly breaks the rules.

Consider real life. The current standard is that approximately 50% of all marriages here end in divorce. Which means 50% of society is bad with relationships. In fact, more than 50%. Many people stay in unhealthy marriages who should leave. A broken marriage is not the only indication of relationship issues.

It’s commonly known that cycles are repeated. Children from homes where there’s been a divorce are more likely to have a marriage end in divorce, just like children who grow up with abuse are more likely to become abusers.

Move on to cars, music and home. In my opinion, in this era of cookie cutter houses people are looking for things to distinguish themselves more and more. I’m honestly not sure what constitutes unusual musical taste – opera? Looking at my CD collection I have everything from Blue Rodeo to Il Divo, Harry Connick Jr to Barenaked Ladies, INXS to U2 to Jackie Leven to Tom Waits to Oscar Lopez. Madeleine Peyroux. Leahy. The Rankin Family. Deric Ruttan. Count me as odd, I guess.

It’s actually incredibly challenging to write stories where coworkers get along. Insubordination adds another level of tension to the story, adds a ‘race against time’ factor to police procedurals, because the reader knows that sooner or later the boss will figure out what the cop is up to and put a stop to it. But not if our intrepid sleuth cracks the case first.

Equally problematic is having extremely bizarre characters. Face it: We’ve probably all done the interests surveys that tell us what careers would be most suited to our personality type at one time or another. I always knew I could never be a nurse because I have a very weak stomach. I handle it better than before, but day in and day out I couldn’t do it. I can freak out just watching someone inject someone on TV. I don’t know that I could do that to people.

The point is simple – certain personalities are suited to certain jobs, and then the person has to be able to meet the job requirements. If you’re writing about cops, it’s going to depend on how seriously you take making the book believable. The more believable you try to make it, the more limited you are with the personality types.

I was determined not to follow stereotypes in my own writing. Perhaps a bit too much so. However, a positive working relationship between my detective and his supervisor was central to Suspicious Circumstances. When I wrote What Burns Within (which I did not write immediately after SC –there were several projects in between, some children’s, and other full length manuscripts) there were both types of relationships at play. For the most part, I’ve tried to work within what I consider a more typical reality. Frankly, senior officers aren’t going to keep rogue cops in their division if they can help it. Cops like team players, because lives depend on it, and when you work murders you won’t be cut as much slack. The higher profile the department, the more scrutiny.

However, you’ve effectively eliminated one whole avenue of developing suspense in the storyline by having a positive working environment, and the truth is, there will always be tensions in any working environment. I’ve been focusing more on how people can let good relationships get in the way of the work, and instead of going over the top to create artificial tension to use realistic situations and dynamics to add layers to the story.

Now that I’m writing the sequel to What Burns Within I’ve had to deal with a major staff change within the team. And this has impacted all the other working dynamics. What I’ve found that’s far more interesting (to me anyway) to play with is the delicate balance of trust. It can take a lifetime to regain the trust you lose in a split second, and trust between partners is imperative.

That’s been my approach, but I can see the issues with crossing the line and becoming a cliché. Worse, though, I can see the danger of boring the reader. Should we not have relationship issues just to make sure we don’t fall into a stereotype? 99.9% of couples have relationship issues of some kind. It would actually be extremely unrealistic for there not to be relationship issues that came up for characters.

Then we get into defining character. One of the best ways to identify the character in our minds is through their interests, tastes and values, and the relationship dynamics in their lives. Possessions and music become the standards for interests – after all, how often do cops have time to sit and watch TV? Music can be listened to while driving, making it a more accessible and realistic form of entertainment to reference. I’ve been told to give characters unusual ticks, a limp, speech impediment to make them stand out from others, but that drives me up the wall as a reader and writer as well. It seems gimmicky if that’s the only reason you do it. I want the reader to come away feeling that This could be the person next door or, if not next door, Across town. I want there to be a sense the person is real. And I don’t want to give my character scoliosis just because I have it and having a slight limp physically distinguishes them. Face it, cops actually have physical requirements and must be able to meet certain standards to perform their duties. This was something Evil Kev and I laughed over, when someone complained why all these firefighters were written holding a hose the same way. Because there’s a proper way to hold one and lives depend on it! Equipment doesn’t always work if it’s mishandled.

In my opinion, if you want to knock writers for anything, knock them for the greatest sin, which is producing an absolutely forgettable book. Okay, I do prefer books that have some originality. There is a certain amount of pulp I’ll brush off because it feels as though someone’s made a checklist of necessary ingredients and put them together, but somehow, it lacks the spark. There are plenty of people who’ve written published books that in my own mind I would refer to as writers. The reason I’m distinguishing is that their work feels just like the pulp I described – necessary ingredients put together but lacking spark.

The best authors breathe the breath of life into their characters. They’re real enough to step off the page. They capture the reader in such a way that the reader wants to spend more time with them. Likeable or unlikable, they intrigue and captivate. It is not in our happiest moments of our lives that we come to grips with powerful truths, but in the moments we face loss, face our deepest fears or doubts about ourselves and others. It is when we’re confronted with the possibility of loss that we begin to assign value to those relationships, people, careers, possessions. This is why the finest hour for a great work of crime fiction is often the protagonist’s darkest. This is, for me, what sets Rebus, Jack Taylor, Dennis Milne, Tom Thorne, Brant, Pearce, Tess Monaghan, Joe Frye, and other favourites of mine apart. And the series books I stick with are the ones that keep showing me more of that character, taking me deeper. In doing so, these authors not only entertain, but teach me a thing or two about life. I’m left feeling my understanding of what it is to be human has been broadened by having spent a bit of time in their company, and that’s what I consider to be time well spent.

“The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory, they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.”
~ Norman Cousins


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

The cynical yet somehow idealistic loner who drinks a lot and digs jazz is a cliche?


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I thought about that thread too on the BTZ. I put it down to each persons perception.
It's not so much a cliche as something in common really. After all you have two choices a) a happy relationship or b) an unhappy one! The latter is always more interesting as it gives us a chance to watch the character develop.
It's too easy to over analyise theese things, isin't it?

Christa M. Miller said...

Actually, police divorce rates are higher than in the general population. Estimates range from 60 to 75 percent. So I don't see that as a cliche - as long as it's not presented in cliched terms (wouldn't communicate, paranoid with children's safety, etc.) or, as you say, described with so much care that the character breaks through the stereotype and comes alive.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patrick, so jazz is weird taste in music?

I think it is easy to overanalyze, and you're right, it will boil down to individual taste. If the fifth book you read in a row has a divorced cop with a drinking problem who listens to (jazz?) and doesn't get along with their boss, yeah, you might think it's a cliche, boring, repetitious. But it's no more of a cliche than the incompentent cops theme that a lot of amateur sleuth books rely on. One dishwasher is smarter than a whole team of cops. Read five of those in a row and the conclusion is cops are incompetent, and it's overdone.

Anything can seem overdone. Authors have to make decisions based on the stories they're attempting to tell. Readers will either get them, or not.

I completely agree about watching the character develop.

Christa, I hear so many people argue the opposite of that. And one of the main things I've heard authors say is that by marrying off the characters they really limited the storylines. Then there are those who don't want the family involved in the books anyway, just the investigation...

JamesO said...

I find the odd little quirks - Rebus' taste in music being one particularly annoying example - to be the worst bits of character development, even in otherwise sparkly books. Even if they're not cliched, they stand out as the author trying too hard. I think character, or lack of it, comes through the way the protagonist deals with the shit you throw at him during the course of the book.

That said, you do need some familiar ground otherwise your reader blunders around lost. The trick is in describing it in new and interesting ways.

Me, I'm still trying...

Sandra Ruttan said...

James, what I meant by the remark is that this is what helps a character stand out in a person's mind, quickly. Think... CSI. Who's the guy in charge? The guy who likes bugs. The main woman? The ex-stripper. Being a show, they can do more visual distinguishing characteristics. Look at Broken Skin. Candy Man, Anger Management Chick, Armpit Itching Lesbian, Bondage Boy. Almost all the characters around Logan can be recalled by habit or interest.

People do it because it helps the character stick in a person's brain better. It defines the character to them.

Personally, I love the musical references. Perhaps it's because for much of my own life music has been so important, was always on, I'd fall asleep to certain albums. My moods were tied to what I listened to, so to me it doesn't read as trying too hard, but norma, and it was a part of the reason I connected to the character.

While I personally, writing level, believe in revealing character through actions and dialogue, because the choices a person makes say more about them than anything, I also realize that publishers want a character that's distinctive in some fashion so that they can pitch them. I actually think we're at risk of seeing more and more extreme characters in fiction. Or maybe it's just me, but in the past year I've tossed aside books that just didn't ring true, that really felt as though someone was trying too hard. It's a fine line, and it will shift reader to reader.

I'm told the #1 reason for rejections from publishers is because of weak characters/characters they didn't connect with, btw. It says something about how important it is to develop characters in a way that publishers want if the goal is getting published.

JamesO said...

Interesting you should pick Broken Skin in that list. I think Stuart's books are amazing, but think of all the supporting characters you summed up there, then do the same for Logan. Sure he has his 'back from the dead' scars, but almost all his character derives from how he interacts with everyone else. No little idiosyncrasies at all.

I quite agree you need to make your characters quickly and easily identifiable, and also people readers can relate to - either positively or negatively. And it's a bugger knowing how to do that.

But then I guess if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't think of Broken Skin negatively - I think part of the reason Logan works is because he is surrounded by such a bizarre crew who have these quirks. And I used it as an example because I know you've read it. What I've found particularly challenging with What Burns Within was trying to work with a cast of characters who are actually relatively normal. Three main characters, look at it this way:

One's a woman (Ashlyn)
One's Native (Tain)
One's the son of the sergeant (Craig)

Now, I can add a layer and say that they all have things in their own lives that distinguish them. Book 2 goes a lot deeper. Ashlyn's issues are rooted in the present and I won't share what those are at this stage. Tain is trying not to face the anniversary of his daughter's death. Craig is beyond fucked to the extreme, but I don't want to say much more than that. In a way, you could say what sets him apart is how he assesses his own self worth. And it's not healthy.

But if you look at a lot of what sells, it's very hard to put a group of relatively normal people together in fiction and make it stand out enough to sell. Personally, I thought the Thorne books did a great job of that. I have no trouble believing in real people such as those. An example of playing to the extremes to the point of bordering on unbelievable for me was Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects. The book is great in terms of subject matter and some of the issues addressed, but there were relationship dynamics and character choices I couldn't believe in. An unreliable premise, essentially. Yet the book was nominated for multiple awards. In a reader discussion of it a lot of people said almost all the characters were extremes, and they were. And the men were pretty much stereotypes that just slipped between a lot of extremely evil, bitchy women. Still, the overall package works, because it isn't about reality. It's about what stands out in someone's mind, and the book was shocking enough to linger. I'm not saying it's a bad book either - I recommend it - but it's an example of pushing characters to extremes to make something really stand out.

Sandra Ruttan said...

(And I suppose I should point out in book 2, Craig's dad is no longer his sergeant. A big part of his issues centers on his relationships.)

You know what I'm wondering? If the prevalence of cliches or extreme character definition is part of the reason for the genre vs literature rift. I can definitely see some books that would make me not appreciate the genre as much or take it seriously.

John McF said...

The other day I heard the line, "Good writers throw away the facts to get at the truth."

So, I think a lot of the problems tend to come up when writers try to react against other writing instead of trying to paint a clear picture of the world as they see it. Sometimes you just have to embrace your cliches.

A friend of mine can't get over the fact that Rebus's bosses don't like him even though he solves so many murders. The fact is, like it or not, the police is a bureaucracy in which people rise by being good bureaurocrats - no one expects every murder to get solved.

I was ten years old when my brother joined the RCMP and I've been around cops ever since. From what I've seen, it's like every other big organization with a wide variety of members.

But reality is reality and fiction is fiction. For me, the best fiction, like The Sopranos or The Wire don't take me out of my view of the world very often.

And you know, sometimes when people turn down your writing or offer criticism, they're just going with a gut reaction and try to find the words, and use cliches. It's what people do.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well said John. And that's exactly what I think, looking back on earlier stuff, that I was reacting against to some degree. I'm not interested in painting the world to all extremes just to be bold or for the sake of doing it, so I'm happy with what I'm doing, because it's more grounded in reality. If it's warranted that my officers get along with their boss, they'll get along. And if it's warranted that there will be a conflict, there will be a conflict. I won't do one or the other just to try to avoid what some see as a cliche.

I enjoy action, sure, but I also enjoy seeing characters confronted by issues, processing situations and using that as a springboard to show more.

One of my favourite things about people is how inconsistent they are, in reality. Many are situational beings. Every time I put a character in a new situation I see different things about them, and I enjoy the process of discovery, in my writing and in my reading. That's just me.

Oh, and since you mentioned Rebus, listen to any Wishbone Ash lately?

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"Patrick, so jazz is weird taste in music?"

Not weird, but annoying. Want your jaded, alcoholic detective to seem like a deep thinker? Make him a jazz fan.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, I see your point about the jazz. I mean, I like jazz and I suppose I don't associate deep thinkers with, say, rap music, but I think what makes a person a deep thinker is actually thinking. Not what music they listen to.

Next up: Detectives who listen to mood music (you know the stuff I mean, Sounds of the Ocean, Humpback Whales, Soothing Rhythms - drug store music).

One of the reasons I listen to Il Divo is because it doesn't distract me when I'm writing.

Next CD I want to buy? Daniel Hatadi. : ) I don't know what he calls his stuff but I like it. (And it's a shame there isn't actually a CD.)

John McF said...

"You know what I'm wondering? If the prevalence of cliches or extreme character definition is part of the reason for the genre vs literature rift."

Well, certainly the use of the same character over and over could have something to do with it. That may be why when it's done really well people write stuff like it, "transends the genre."

In some ways, in the genres, we want it all. We love series, we like to see the slow development of a character over ten or fifteen or twenty books, and we require a lot of conventions -- there must be a crime, someone must try and solve it, etc., -- and then we complain that it's treated like a "genre."

I suppose there are 'literary' writers that use the same characters a few times, but it's rare. I like Frank Bascombe, but Richard Ford's only used him three times and at very different points in his life.

Where it may also become "genre" is when one detective gets a "case of his/her career" every year. Even in a big city with lots of crime, the 'murder mystery' is very rare.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, those are good points. I think that's why the books I lean toward are more character driven, usually, than plot driven.

norby said...

You know I wonder if part of the reason we find the cliches so attractive in our reading is because we spend so much time in our daily lives classifying people with them.

Every fall my husband and I meet a new batch of college freshman and student staff. As we get to know them, we talk about them using cliches that fit the age group we're dealing with. Cliches or not, there is truth to them and they help my husband know how to deal with each student so that he can help them.

I think everyone does the same thing in their daily life-when you see the guy with his impeccably tailored suit and the phone to his ear, or the kid with the crazy hair, baggy pants, and funky shoes. We fit them into the cliched categories that society tells us they must belong to.

So, when reading, of course the cliched cop becomes real with his quirks and his rebellion. It's what we've come to expect. A family man? Now he must really be the rebel.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Family man? What's that?

norby said...

I'm not entirely certain-I couldn't find it in the dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Do writers ever give their characters the same taste in music as they have? That would save a lot of time.
If i were to write I'd probably use what i know.
Maybe it's more realistic to have a broken down copper in your book. If that's what happens in reality.
As has already been said many times before me, people will always find something to complain about. But hey, if they are complaining about it, they are talking about it and so you've made an impact! Success, no?


Sandra Ruttan said...

Chel, I believe Rankin does. And I think Mark as well. I do, to some degree.

You're right - if people are talking you've made an impact.

Trace said...

Well said Sandra, as always.