Tuesday, July 5, 2011


How organic do you want your characters to be?

If someone had asked me that a year ago, I would have answered quickly: As organic
as possible. I want to work with real people moving through my fictional pages.

Now, though, I'm not as sure.

Writing my first novel, Dead Politician Society, my characters were easy to control. They were not layered deeply with complexity like John Irving's or John Le Carre's characters, but I was fine with that; they suited the story. These men and women did exactly as they were told; they stayed well inside the lines of the plot I wanted them to fit into. As a result, I think this book works as a fun, light, logic puzzle.

Writing my second novel, Death Plays Poker, I wanted to continue the series but get deeper with my characters. So I spent more time getting to know the players before thrusting a plot upon them. They struggled a bit – I had to change the plot a few times to accommodate their quirks – but it was nothing I couldn't stay on top of. This book took more work, but I like the way it continues from the first one – a bit deeper, a bit darker, but still fun and light and logical.

So naturally I wanted to push even harder for the third book (still untitled, though it's due at the end of the summer). I wanted to challenge myself to get closer to the writers I most admire (like Irving and Le Carre) for how deeply real their characters can be.

But you know the problem with real people? They don't obey commands so well. These new characters don't seem to care that they're in a series that has to continue to be fun and fast to satisfy readers who enjoyed the first two books. They would rather smoke pot and philosophize than jump into their snowboarding gear and cause havoc and red herrings. But they can't be as dark and brooding as they like. They have to crack jokes and be devious and entertain their audience.

So the question that arises is: Am I pushing the walls of the genre too far out? When you're writing fast-paced crime fiction, how organic do you want your characters to be? Maybe James Bond is flat for a reason – his stories are damn entertaining, and he satisfies his audience time after time. Or is there a way I can keep my characters alive and figure out how to work a tight plot around them anyway?

To answer that, I look at fast-paced crime fiction writers I admire:

Jonathan Kellerman: He gets up close and personal with his characters, and his psychology background shows as he finds ways to layer his characters in very few words. I find myself deeply involved in his stories – they feel real and alive and I can't not turn the pages. His plots are tight, fast, and original each time. (Impressive, because the guy churns out a lot of books.) He can do what I'm aiming to.

Lisa Brackmann: I'm only halfway through Rock Paper Tiger, but from page one, I could feel energy. The story moves fast – she pulls us running along with the protagonist and it's really hard to set the book down. And the characters are even deeper than Kellerman's. I feel like I could meet Ellie for coffee in Beijing and we'd have a million things to talk about. I feel like I could turn on my computer and jump into the online game she's playing. The book is also really fun. I laugh out loud at least three times per page. Lisa can also do what I'm aiming for with this book.

Hilary Davidson: While I wouldn't call The Damage Done fast, because it feels so fluid reading it, the plot moves at a clipping pace and a lot happens. At the same time, I feel like I could meet Lily, drink some wine, and learn from her. That's right: learn from a fictional character. So Hilary can do this, too.

Conclusion: Organic characters can be corralled into a tight, fun, fast plot. I don't have to change genres, and I don't have to turn Clare into James Bond.

So I'll keep wrestling. Maybe I'll miss my deadline, if my characters won't obediently fall into line by the end of the summer. Or maybe I won't achieve that balance with this particular book. But I think it's worth the fight to keep pushing this series in the direction I'd like to

Robin Spano is the author of Dead Politician Society, the first book in a series about a young, hot-blooded undercover cop. This is the closest she will ever come to realizing her childhood dream of being one of Charlie's Angels. She lives in Lions Bay, BC.

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