Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The non-professional hero

Barbara here. The first review of my upcoming novel, THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, landed in my email inbox this morning, courtesy of my publicist. I suspect all writers are like me, anxiously awaiting that first review of our precious darling, which we have just set afloat out into the world with no idea whether readers will hate it or love it. 

Reviews almost always start with a summary of the plot, which is of no real concern to us authors, since we wrote the thing. So here is the critical meat of the review ...

This is an extremely well written and plotted novel. The characters were likeable, except for Amanda’s tendency not to listen to advice and run off half-cocked into danger. This is my first Barbara Fradkin book, but it certainly won’t be my last. I truly enjoyed this novel. It was a refreshing and original storyline.

Overall, this is a very good review and allows me to take my first tentative breath of relief. However, there is that small prick of criticism, contained in most reviews: "The characters were likeable, except for Amanda’s tendency not to listen to advice and run off half-cocked into danger."  This one is minor and does not appear to detract from the reader's enjoyment of the story, but it got me thinking about the challenge of writing about ordinary people as sleuths. 

In my two previous series, I did not face this problem. In the ten Inspector Green novels, it was Inspector Green's job to go after bad guys, even to put himself in danger for the public good. Even some of his more outlandish breaches of normal protocol could be supported by the demands of the situation. In my Cedric O'Toole novels  Cedric was a reluctant sleuth and rarely set out to fix things, instead finding himself in the midst of a mess.

But Amanda Doucette is a different sort of hero, a former international aid worker whose concern for people in trouble often has her chasing it. 

As I wrote TRICKSTER, I was aware that I was venturing into the realm of the improbable and that the reader would need some suspension of disbelief, but it's a rare book that stays within the lines of a safe, predictable story. This is particularly true of thrillers and of books where the main hero is not a person habitually involved in enforcing the law or saving lives. In real life, most ordinary people would simply phone 911 and trust the professionals to handle things. The trick for the writer is to make the story believable one step at a time, to draw the reader out onto that limb of disbelief without having them pause, look around, and say to themselves "OHG, this is ridiculous, I shouldn't be here." 

Character is crucial here. The reader has to think the character's choice makes perfect sense given the type of person they are and their state of mind at the time. The moment the reader thinks this character would never do that or is making a choice that is blatantly stupid (like going down into the dark basement to investigate a noise, carrying only a candle), the reader disengages from the story. Creating the perfect character for this role of hero is more difficult that one might think. The character needs to be smart, resourceful, brave, determined, and self-reliant, which is why there is a recurrent trope of intelligence, stubbornness, and "feistiness" among these sleuths. In fact, it's a challenge to avoid cliches. The character also has to be distrustful of the authorities' ability to solve the case, which is why so many books portray the police as incompetent, corrupt, overworked, or some combination of these. Again a cliche that is hard to avoid.

Above and beyond all this, the character has to have a powerful personal motive for getting involved in the case. This can be something from their past, a friend or themselves being suspected of the crime, or a threat to themselves, a loved one, or someone in their care. Writers want the reader to care whether the hero solves the case and to root for them along the way. There are a lot of dangers and pitfalls for the writer to navigate along the way, including motives that are cliched or overdone, unsympathetic, or just plain ridiculous. 

In this review, the reader found Amanda's tendency not to listen to advice and to go off half-cocked annoying. But that's who Amanda is, so I'm not sure I could have avoided that. It's part of her nature, springing in part from her action-oriented temperament and in part from her past demons. Like real people, characters have flaws which make them human and, one hopes, more interesting and sympathetic. As a writer, I can only hope that people will understand her drive, forgive her pig-headedness, and root for her anyway. It seems as if, in this reader's case, that happened.

I'd love to hear readers' and writers'  thoughts on this challenge of believability, and also what cliches are most bothersome, what is getting old and tired. In the service of a good story, I think the suspension of disbelief can stretch pretty far. Talking cats, anyone? 


Eileen Goudge said...

I draw the line at talking ghosts or cats, though a dog communicating through body language/signals (as in Donna Ball's excellent Raine Stockton and Flash series)is acceptable if handled adroitly.

Donis Casey said...

I have the same problem with every book I write--my protagonist has to have a wildly compelling reason to get involved, and sometimes that is not so easy to come up with! Also, it amuses me that you have the same author's quirk as I do (and most authors I know). The review is fabulous, but the thing that sticks out to you is the one little nit that the reviewer picked.

Sybil Johnson said...

No talking cats for me, at least in adult mysteries. I don't mind them in books for children. There's a really fun time travel series for kids by Wendy Leighton-Porter that features a talking cat.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Talking cats are not for me either, Sybil. And Donis, it's so true that we authors focus on the nit, LOL Finding a wildly compelling motive for a character is easiest the first time around, which is why stand-alones work so well, but it gets harder to find compelling but different motives for a character in a series. How many times would a character go off half-cocked after yet another murderer?

Vicki Delany said...

Even police procedurals have a huge suspension-of-disbelief problem. Most police work is fairly boring and mundane. And when a spectacular crime does happen, such as a murder, they usually know whodunit immediately. The clever cop matching wits with the clever criminal just doesn't happen much, if at all. The work is all behind the scenes - compiling the evidence and filling out forms to take to court. Not the stuff of exciting novels.