This week's guest Girl Detective, the clever
and talented Shelley McKibbon, discusses the
challenge of writing realistic and engaging
series characters--and the influence of Trixie
Belden. Though Shelley has yet to sell her first
novel, it's only a matter of time--and I guarantee
I'll be first in line to buy a copy!
The people who live in your head....
Here's the thing: when you write amateur-sleuth
mysteries, you're already counting on the reader
to willingly suspend disbelief. Nobody believes
in crime-fighting dog trainers or English teachers
or peewee hockey players. Not really. Just by
picking up your book the reader is agreeing to
meet you at least halfway. The question is, where
do you as the writer plan to meet your reader?
There are writers whose grandmothers apparently
told them they might as well be hung for sheep
as lambs and who create wild stories with
improbable plots and colourful characters.
I enjoy stories like this but I don't think
I could write one, mostly because what I
hear in my head is my own cool-yet-sort-of-terrifying
grandmother telling me, "There's no need
to go to hell with the joke." Right now I'm
working on a series featuring a nosy third-grade
teacher and her horse trainer sidekick. If I don't
want the reader to do all the heavy lifting, I need
to find ways to make my implausible setup seem a little
To me, a major element in that is creating a
plausible central character. In my stories,
that seems to translate into protagonists who are…
well, pretty ordinary, really. Part of my reasoning
is this: to me, a lot of the pleasure of the
amateur-sleuth story is in watching an ordinary person
deal with extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, when
I started work on a mystery of my own I made my
sleuth, Tracy, very life-sized. I did make some initial
attempts to make her more "interesting" by injecting sarcasm
and cynicism into her, but it just didn't stick:
the minute I let up she turned into a much warmer
character. And I also realized that most of the "colourful"
characteristics I'd tried to apply to Tracy were actually
covered by the rest of the cast--Lynn is a more skilled
horsewoman, Alana is snarky, Jamie's smart, and Ty has a clan of
offbeat relatives down in Texas--or at least he says
he does. Even so, the whole cast is composed of pretty
normal people, for a given value of "normal." I just seem
to write them that way.
I blame Trixie Belden, really.
I don’t know if it's true that you’re either
a Nancy Drew
fan or a Trixie fan, but it's a fact that I could never
relate to Nancy and was always more interested in Trixie
and her friends. Part of the attraction was the recurring
cast of named animal characters, but in retrospect I think
a bigger factor was simply that I could relate to Trixie.
She was a pretty average kid: not pretty, not a great student
(in fact, the way Trixie neglected her schoolwork often made
me very nervous as I read about it), inclined to be tactless
and quick-tempered but genuinely remorseful when she messed up.
The fact she was a middle child was another point of similarity
that was probably more important than I realized at the time.
Her parents laid down the law when they thought it was necessary,
and sometimes her older brothers did the same. I wouldn't say
Trixie was exactly defiant when this happened--certainly not
toward her parents--but she always had the confidence to
continue her investigations even in the face of disapproval
from people she really did want to approve of her. Given the
kind of middle child I was, I found Trixie's behaviour
terrifying and sort of exhilarating all at once.
What I didn't really register at the time was the
degree to which my identification with Trixie allowed
me to insert myself into the story, and incidentally also
helped me suspend my disbelief at the notion of a crime-fighting
eighth-grader. Because I could relate to, and believe in,
Trixie as a character, the stories in which she
appeared felt a lot more plausible.
I didn't think about all this when I was an eighth-grader
myself, but I think it was a major reason why I was so
drawn to this type of character when I actually started
trying to write mysteries. And writing would-be realistic
characters probably has benefits for me as someone who's
learning to write: I have to keep stopping to think about
how a real person might react to the murder of someone she's
known for years and never liked very much. I have always
had a tendency to go for flip dialogue, which is fun to
write even though I don't know whether I'm any good at it,
but when I actually began to ask myself whether the character
would actually say that, it made me write more carefully.
In the same way, Tracy's motivation for sleuthing was something
I tried very hard to make credible, because if you believe in
her, I don't think you'll believe she just
decided to poke into a murder because she was bored or something.
I also found that trying to make Tracy and her friends feel as
real as possible also helped me avoid falling into a few "wannabe
original" traps. There are plenty of mysteries out there with
unique" characters, and while the actual originals ring
true, I've noticed that the ones that aren't as well-written
aren't unique at all. In fact, some of them read as though
the author had some sort of "quirky" checklist. I said
before that I tried for a while to make Tracy sardonic,
and originally she had a few bitter quips about past
romantic disasters. When I thought about it,
though, I decided I was only doing that because
I'd read and enjoyed a number of mysteries featuring
troubled female leads.
Okay, here's the thing: I watch American Idol
(and, in fact, the Canadian version too) and if there's
one thing I've learned from Idol it's that just
because a contestant really likes a song,
it doesn't mean he or she can sing it.
And just because I like to read angst sometimes,
it doesn't mean I'm any good at writing it.
I just didn't have a good reason for giving
Tracy those qualities.
While I was thinking about that, it also
occurred to me that a character living in the
city in which she'd grown up, with living parents,
should probably see them once in a while. And that
got me thinking about whether
he was a character who'd be close to her family.
I gave serious thought to whether she'd have a screw-up
sibling who could feature in later plot developments.
I came to the conclusion that, like troubled leads,
I'd read that one too many times already and wasn't confident
I could do anything interesting with the concept. And I like
characters who are dealing with traumas from their pasts, at
least when they're done well and I believe them. I just didn't
want to write one of the other kind. Then it occurred to me that
the character I was writing could easily be made to deal with a
traumatic event in the present--not the murder, something
family-related. As a medical librarian, I had been doing
some reading on a few possibilities and even had a character
floating around who could easily be added to the story as
Tracy's younger brother. Enter Jamie, and a medical subplot
that makes me exceedingly nervous--if I don't pull it off
I'll have written something worse than just trite. On the
other hand, adding Jamie and his subplot pulled the
story together amazingly--even elements I'd already
written suddenly made a lot more sense once the family
storyline was added.
I don't know whether this story will ever see the
light of day, but I'm already planning work on further
stories involving these characters. Before that, however,
I'm going to work over a story I wrote for
National Novel-Writing Month. This one involves a rock
band, because I'm interested in rock bands and
I've never read a mystery involving one I liked much.
Trixie fan that I am, I finally realized that the problem
was when the bands were presented as wealthy and pampered
I just couldn't relate to them. Clearly, it was up to me
to write a rock mystery involving a band that was young,
broke, and hopeful. I ended up with a sleuth I really liked,
a kid who's much too trusting, won't call his parents
when he's scared because he wouldn't want to worry them,
and solves the mystery by referring to his own expectations
about how people's parents are supposed to behave. I don't
know that I've exactly created a realistic young male
character, but I'm trying hard to at least give him internal
consistency. In his case the victims are friends of his
and his reaction to the murders is quite a bit more intense
than that of Tracy in the other story. In fact, I was
wavering on a third murder and then realized it wouldn't
work dramatically: I'd just gotten the character, Jordy,
to a point where he was actively trying to solve the problem
as opposed to freaking out about it, and hitting him with
another murder at that stage would have been too much of a
setback. If I hadn't been forced to consider the character's
reaction I have no idea how high the body count might have gone.
There are disadvantages to feeling close
to characters: in the Tracy mystery I had to
read over certain emotional passages a dozen times
or more before rewriting them, just to get over my
own reaction so I could look at them objectively.
And in the case of the Jordy story, I learned
that if I create a character on purpose to be
a murdered it might not be a great idea to make
up a huge back story and allow him to take on a
resemblance, at least in my head, to Joel Plaskett
But the occasional obsessive bout of rereading,
or even shamefacedly re-engineering a plot so I
can keep a character I've gotten attached to, is worth
it when it helps me stay on track with the story I'm
trying to tell. I may eventually branch out into trying
to come up with a really larger-than-life character, but
for the moment I think the people I write about help keep
me connected to the story, and I hope will affect readers the same way.
Now, another issue I need to consider is my thing
about making sure all the animal characters
are as realistic as possible, too. But that is a blog for
Shelley McKibbon is comprehensively unpublished but lives
in hope. Actually, she lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where
she works as a librarian and writes amateur sleuth mysteries,
generally featuring animals who neither speak nor sleuth.
Her usual Web hangout is The Great Dark Wonder, where she sometimes blogs
about writing, but more often about her pets and various Canadian bands you really should check out
. The manuscript for her first Tracy Buchanan mystery is
currently under consideration at Poisoned Pen Press, and she's
pretty excited about it!