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Characters in Crime

Studying the skeleton

During the beginning of May, Canada Writes will be looking at compelling characters in crime fiction. We’ve recruited some of the Crime Writers of Canada to offer us insider advice on how to create memorable sleuths and villains.

Mystery author Cathy Ace takes a page from Leonardo da Vinci and looks beneath the skin to paint her own characters.
Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
My favourite sleuth isn’t a person, but a couple: Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who appeared in several books by Agatha Christie. 

What is it you like about him/her? 
What I like about these characters is the way that they grow as they age. Beginning as “Adventurers” they are the classic flapper couple, their escapades being tales of derring-do featuring larger-than-life baddies and nefarious underworld types. By the time we meet them, married with children, in later novels, we can see how their experiences and life together have allowed them to develop into a happy couple with a balanced approach to life. The last two Tommy & Tuppence novels, By The Pricking of my Thumbs and Postern of Fate, are amongst my favourite works by Agatha Christie, and feature the now-aged couple using their wits and wisdom to outwit darker, more complex adversaries. From tongue-in-cheek to worldly-wise, but never world-weary, I find them to be engaging, great fun to be with and, ultimately, somewhat inspiring.

Who is your favourite villain? 
This has been a difficult decision to make: I have finally decided that Moriarty really is my favourite, though that might seem trite. What is it that makes them particularly villainous? He’s the prototypical anti-hero, matching our hero in all aspects, especially mental acuity and a driving determination to use his brain to the fullest. It’s always a joy to return to these tales of a two-sided coin—a matched battle.

How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work? 
In my books the bad guys will be book-specific, but my good guys will exist across the series: this allows me to paint a complex, flawed character, bound to be beaten by the good guys each time, but to develop the humanity of my good guys, as well as utilizing their sleuthing skills, from book to book. In process terms, I develop deep psychological profiles of my sleuths, my victims, each of my suspects, and, of course, my villain/s. Alongside this necessary psychological profile I also build their entire life stories, and, from there, the plot flows.

What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels? 
I think that the critical factor is depth below the surface: readers know if a character is “true” or “right” based upon what the character says and does, as well as what other characters “know” to be “true” about them. It’s not about what the writer says about a character that makes them convincing. Da Vinci studied the skeleton and muscles beneath the skin to be better able to paint that which we can see. I think good characters are created when the writer truly knows what’s beneath their outer layers.

Do you have to feel some sympathy for all of the characters in your work, or can you create characters who you loathe? /Do you have to understand what motivates the bad guys? 
I feel empathy, rather than sympathy, for all my characters, based upon understanding what motivates good people to sometimes do bad things, and bad people to sometimes do good things. Without an understanding of the motivation of all my characters, I don’t think I’d be able to create them at all. Creation only comes with the ability to use your medium and, whilst words are the primary medium for writers, I believe that psychological and sociological understanding of motivation is equally important for writers of crime fiction. My ultimate goal is to write a book that is, essentially, a good story, well told—but to do either, or hopefully both, of those things, understanding of and empathy for all the characters is critical.


Welsh Canadian mystery author Cathy Ace is the creator of the Cait Morgan Mysteries, which include The Corpse with the Silver Tongue and The Corpse with the Golden Nose. Born, raised, and educated in Wales, Cathy enjoyed a successful career in marketing and training across Europe, before immigrating to Vancouver, Canada, where she taught on MBA and undergraduate marketing programs at various universities. Her eclectic tastes in art, music, food, and drink have been developed during her decades of extensive travel, which she continues whenever possible. Now a full-time author, Cathy's short stories have appeared in multiple anthologies, as well as on BBC Radio 4. She and her husband are keen gardeners, who enjoy being helped out around their acreage by their green-pawed Labradors.

Twitter: @AceCathy

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