"People "love a good murder." I imagine them saying that over a pot of tea and cake, with a huge grin on their face."


I've always found characters in fiction to be fascinating. From the larger than life superheroes you'll find in comics and graphic novels, to those truly despicable murderous villains in my own crime genre. I love them all... or should I say, I either love them or love the way I can despise them. I've never understood people who complain about the bad nature of a character or say that the character's nature needs to change from being mean or nasty in order for them to be liked. That's the joy of fiction. I've read and heard from a few people recently who have some smart/sharp things to say, and I wanted to draw all this together around the topic of characters in crime fiction. In a recent interview I did with Howard Linskey, he noted that "it's quite nice to be bad for a while knowing that there aren't any actual consequences because none of it is real." I loved this approach and it's one I wholeheartedly agree with. However I'd also caveat it with my own experience of disturbing myself when I've thought through the twisted logic of truly evil characters. Some of the violence I've written has made me feel a little sick.


So I suppose you're now wondering, why would I create a character who makes me feel sick? I can't really give a simple answer to that because it's not straightforward from my perspective. Crime novels tend to involve murder. Murder (from a realistic point of view) is not a remotely nice topic. All the realities of it are quite sickening for the average person. To then create a character who intends to commit murder, you've got to get past the sickening response. However, keeping things realistic, it means you can't skip out the nasty stuff. This leaves only one option: exploring the sort of character who is willing to wade through all the things that would make us feel sick if we had to experience them for real. For my writing, I try my best to make my work as believable as possible, so part of the work for me is to wade through all the same sick, nasty, messy side of murder... while trying to figure out how someone so awful would view it. It's quite morbid really... but I think it's the only way to keep a character within the realms of possibility.


Recently, Leigh Russell wrote a short blog on why we love crime fiction. More specifically, how people "love a good murder." I imagine them saying that over a pot of tea and cake, with a huge grin on their face. Naturally this raises the whole issue of glamorisation of murder, but I don't want to get into that today. Leigh concludes that there's a love for the timeless battle between good and evil, along with the excitement of suspense and a bit of a chase. I fully agree with this and there's got to be something underlying the success of the genre and the love of characters who seem like normal humans. In other genres there'll typically be some kind of larger-than-life aspect to key characters. This tends to make them more engaging, yet we still love the detective who doesn't really have much of a social life, probably enjoys a drink or two and supports a football team.


Ultimately, it all seems quite normal to me. (So much so that some people even complain it's a cliche. Are we just a parody of ourselves these days?) It begs the question, that when other genres will make their characters so much more than the norm... why do we like normal? Average? Ordinary? Nothing special? Perhaps it's easier to identify with such characters. A connection like that is a big deal for some readers. I'd posit that it is more to do with the limitations of the genre. There's a huge amount that can be done within the genre, but we've got to accept that there is a limited number of ways we can kill fictional people. (Though I remember reading about a writer who would kill their neighbour as a character in every book... is that normal? Perhaps they're waiting to find that limit?) There's a limitation on laws that can be broken because there are a finite number of laws. With this in mind, you can probably accuse most modern crime books of being unoriginal in one way or another if you wanted to be picky. After all, it does boil down to three parts of the story which can't really be sidestepped in the murder investigation book: someone is murdered, someone investigates this, the killer is revealed and is caught/escapes.


"Style that is unique to the author provides that uniqueness to the character in the same way a normal person's personality is still unique"


I must confess at this point that I'm a big fan of the procedural with one of these so-called "ordinary" coppers who're just single minded about their work and don't really have much of a social life. While I've heard some people call cliche at the sight of the loner detective, I've got to say... it seems almost a necessity to keep the focus on investigation. That's not to say it can't be done with a very sociable investigator. For my money, it just fits. So with that in mind, how do we have so many original characters out there? My guess would be subtlety. Take Rebus and Bosch as characters. Both very well known and have quite a bit in common. Ex-soldiers with a stoic aura and a single minded attitude towards their work. Tend to behave like a bit of a maverick, ignoring the instructions of the boss when it suits them. Likes a drink or two after work. Follows a gut instinct at times but focuses on using the different pieces of information they gather to solve a puzzle. When you read them, do you see these characters as the same person? I know I don't. The only explanation I can come up with is subtle differences in the characters which come through in the writing. Style that is unique to the author provides that uniqueness to the character in the same way a normal person's personality is still unique (despite being normal.)


I could write for days about the detectives I like. From Poirot, through Dalgleish to McLean. They're all puzzle solvers. Is it a cliche to be a puzzle solver in crime fiction? If so then the only original character I've come across is Inspector Frost. He'd much sooner pass his work to someone else instead of solving the puzzle.


With the success of the more normal character within crime fiction, it's logical to suggest I was a bit silly to go with Victor Trimm as my protagonist. For anyone who hasn't read the novel, originally all I wanted to do was write a procedural which could be solved. Something which would appeal to the armchair detective in me. Then another idea struck me one day. I'd read a few books in which the serial killer is a psychopath. While that does happen in real life, the research by Kevin Dutton at Oxford University was suggesting that the majority of psychopaths will lead normal professional lives without going on a killing spree. (The financial and legal professions tend to attract these types of people.) After reading about this, I wondered how it would work if I made the detective in my novel a psychopath. I'd never heard of this being done before and couldn't think of a detective from my own reading who was remotely like this. The idea festered for a while, but then the morbid curiosity in me decided to give it a go.


I was torn over this decision many times. Every time I re-read some of the less pleasant things he'd do, I'd be filled with a sense of revulsion. As my dad understated "he's not very nice, is he?" A complete contrast to my own personality and nothing like my favourite detective, Frost, I was left wondering at times whether I was simply trying to be original for the sake of being original. After all... who on earth would like someone so cold, manipulative and uncaring? Someone who has his own morality based upon a level of self-aggrandising that would make a narcissist blush. Even with this in the back of my mind, I pressed on. I tried to remind myself that characters like Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes and Gordon Gecko have gathered many fans despite their nature.


As the chapters progressed and I grew more familiar with his rather cold and bleak view of the world, my dislike turned to pity for a while. His world without a connection and without the understanding of others would probably make the rest of us quite bleak. The people who know him best regularly tell him they can sense there's something wrong with him. It's a wonder that he can carry on. I don't think I'd be strong enough to do that. It was at this point I started to see something I really liked: His lack of fear or interest in the opinions of others, epitomised by his outdated dress sense and dismissal of anyone who disagreed with it. Just as I quoted at the beginning of the article, it's nice to do things we wouldn't normally do, without the consequences.


With the negativity which came with Trimm's vantage point, there was a pleasure in that strength of character. He might not get everything right, but he still had the strength of his convictions. For me, that turned everything around. It's nice, just for a little while, to disregard all other opinions and just do what you want to do in all your imperfection. I suppose this is something most of us wish we could do without consequence. If I'm honest, I'm glad I can see this happening without consequence to me. The price Trimm pays for this benefit is too high in my opinion. This is why I love characters of all kinds in crime fiction. I can see a variety of worlds without ever having to pay the price. Well... except the price of the book.


Add comment

Security code

Mailing list

Don't want to miss a new release? Sign up for Philip's mailing list! You'll be notified of new releases, special pre-order discounts and free giveaways!