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Characters in Crime

Killing with conviction

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.

Elizabeth J. Duncan writes about her preference for villains who kill with conviction.


Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
I can’t narrow it down to one, but I like the same type. I’m attracted to Roy Grace from the novels by Peter James, DCI Banks from the novels by Peter Robinson, and John Cardinal, created by Giles Blunt. All smart when it comes to crime solving, but layered and conflicted in their personal lives. And all senior police officers.

Who is your favourite villain? What is it that makes them particularly villainous? 
I prefer villains who kill with passion and conviction but with a conscience. Cold-hearted psychopaths, who kill mechanically, without emotion, are not as interesting to me as those who feel remorse and have to live with themselves and their deed. I also like villains who go about their work in a clever thoughtful way, like Dr. Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought. I usually prefer women villains as they are somehow more interesting and devious.  Any villain by Agatha Christie works for me.

How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work? 
First, I create a situation. What problem is so bad, that my character will see killing as the final and best solution? People kill to protect something—a job, a relationship, an inheritance—something they value above all else. Then I put two ordinary people into the situation. One does something bad and the other needs or wants to find out what happened and why. 

What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels?
Conflict is good. The character is conflicted about doing, wanting or being something and has some kind of inner struggle. Perhaps given a difficult choice has had to choose the lesser of two evils. It’s better when the choices are grey, not black and white. Good characters are also interesting, a little flawed so readers can identify with them. Sometimes they’re quirky. They should be distinctive, not bland. Think about Columbo and all the things we can associate with him: the raincoat, cigar, dog, and idiom “Just one more thing, ma’am”. Unforgettable.

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? 
As a crime writer, I understand that bad guys don’t see the world the way I do. They do not always see their actions as bad, and they can always find ways to rationalize or justify what they did. They tell themselves things at 3 a.m. that make it all right. “I had no choice. She was going to leave me.” We live now in an age of entitlement, in which everyone “deserves” good things and people don’t accept responsibility or own their actions. They deflect and blame other people. They see life as “unfair”. So a lot of that motivates and sustains bad guys. 

I think it’s a great idea to create characters that readers loathe. But at some level, readers have to care about the characters, or at least find them interesting. Think about Hannibal Lechter, probably the most despised killer in crime fiction. But people found him and his little foibles fascinating, in a deliciously gruesome kind of way.


Elizabeth J. Duncan’s first work of fiction, The Cold Light of Mourning, won the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Award and was nominated for both an Agatha Award (USA) and Arthur Ellis Award (Canada). The fourth novel in the Penny Brannigan series, A Small Hill to Die On, was published in October, 2012 and is short listed for the Bony Blithe award. Elizabeth lives in Toronto with her dog, Dolly, and spends several weeks each year in North Wales where her books are set. 

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