Thursday, October 14, 2010

What is Our Character Like on an *Ordinary* Day?

Colin Dexter Masterpiece Mystery is my favorite show on TV right now, and I’ve really enjoyed their recent airing of “Inspector Lewis.” It’s a spin-off of the old Inspector Morse series, based on the mysteries by Colin Dexter. The same actor plays Lewis in both the Morse series and the Lewis ones.

The new series renewed my interest in watching the old one again—and PBS came through for me once more when I discovered they were running the shows on Friday nights.

Inspector Morse is an interesting character and I really respect the late Colin Dexter for his creation. He wrote an amazingly intuitive detective with a brilliant mind and incredible deductive ability.

But the most interesting thing about the character and why so many readers fell in love with him is what he was like when he wasn’t solving crimes. He was difficult and quiet—a lover of crosswords, classical music (especially Wagner), art, classical literature, and beer. He spoke his mind. He was crusty, grouchy—and fascinating.

I think, actually, the success of the series is due in large part to who Inspector Morse was in his spare time…when he wasn’t solving a crime and wasn’t facing a crisis.

This really makes me think. So much of our energy as a writer is poured (and rightly so) into the conflict the protagonist is facing and how they handle it. How can we best fit in the tidbits about the character—the non-conflict-related stuff that makes us love them?

I think our character needs to have a little bit of downtime in our books. Not enough, obviously, to bore the reader or interrupt the progression of the plot to a large degree—but enough for our readers to really get acquainted with our protagonist. Enough for us to develop our character a little bit and show the kind of person they are when they’re not working out the book’s conflict.

Aside from that, I think dialogue helps. We can find out a lot about our character through their interactions with secondary characters.

Even sketching out our characters’ house can tell us about them. How do they live? Can we tell what’s important to them by their possessions? Do they have trophies on their mantel from sports’ victories…or middle school spelling bees? Do they have lots of family pictures in frames? Is their house spartan or cluttered?

What kinds of things does your character do…when they’re not busy saving the world? How do you slip it in enough to intrigue the reader instead of boring them?