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Characters in Crime

What makes characters tick?

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.

Chevy Stevens writes about building a life for her good guys and bad guys. 
Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
I don’t think I can narrow this down to one! I used to love Archie McNally, from the Lawrence Sander’s books—he was so fun. I also like Kinsey Millhone from the Sue Grafton Series. Michael Connelly’s character Hieronymus Bosch is a classic example of the hero who always does what he thinks is right, even when it puts him in conflict with his superiors and risks his career. Steve Carella in Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels was a great cop who loved his wife.

Who is your favourite villain? What is it that makes them particularly villainous? 
The two stand outs for me are Hannibal Lector, who was created by Thomas Harris, and Gretchen Lowell, from the novels by Chelsea Cain. Both of these villains are intelligent, sophisticated, charismatic, and relentless. 

How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work? 
I try to really get inside their minds, understand what it is that drives them, what they need and want. Is it control? What are they reacting to? Then I try to build a life for them, a backstory, so that I can figure out what makes them tick. Though, in real life there are people who just do bad things for no apparent reason, in fiction, we need someone who is more three-dimensional or they aren’t very interesting. We need to feel like our heroes are up against someone very clever. 

What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels?
I like it when the hero is very real, they have real fears, conflicts with others, problems in relationships, and a strong moral code. They do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. For villains, they need to be intelligent and have fascinating characteristics, and sometimes even a twisted bond with the antagonist. For Gretchen Lowell, it’s her beauty and her obsession with Archie, the detective. For Hannibal, it’s his sophistication and his manipulations of Clarice.

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 always need to understand their motivations and have a sense of why they are doing these terrible things. I’m not sure if I would call it sympathy, but it helps if I can see some humanity in them, if I can connect on some level and related to their need and desire, whether it is for a family of their own, or something else. 

Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still lives on the island with her husband and daughter. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s camping and canoeing with her family in the local mountains.  Her debut novel, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel.

Twitter: @ChevyStevens

Photo credit: Suzanne Teresa

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