Characters in Crime
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.
Owen Laukkanen writes about crafting evil characters you want to hang around with for three or four hundred pages.
Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
I think my favourite fictional sleuth is Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, the conflicted German investigator/private detective who solves mysteries against the backdrop of Nazi-era Berlin.
Gunther is a hero in the Phillip Marlowe mold, which is to say he’s something of a perpetual sad sack whose peculiar combination of tenacity and strong sense of decency get him into more than his share of sticky situations. That his morality often puts him in direct opposition to the Nazis who employ him makes him a remarkable character who’s very easy to root for.
Who is your favourite villain? What is it that makes them particularly villainous?
My thing about villains is that I like to be able to relate to them, and that’s why I like the criminals in John McFetridge’s fantastic Toronto series (Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Swap). His Bad Guys are outlaw bikers, petty crooks, gun runners, hookers and drug dealers, but they’re not bad guys, at least no more so than the cops who are their opposites. McFetridge makes them three-dimensional, real people with real wants and needs, as though they (or most of them, anyway) continue to live and breathe even when the book is finished.
How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work?
I start with a crime, and then I try to figure out what would prompt someone to commit that crime. I don’t like villains who are one-dimensional, who are motivated by greed or simply by malevolence. So I try to figure out what would tempt a relatively normal person into a life of crime, and I go from there.
I’d say I try to make all of my characters, bad guys and good guys, as three-dimensional as possible, and to give them enough of a personality that the audience wants to hang around with them for three- or four-hundred pages.
What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels?
Depth and personality. I think we want heroes who are flawed enough to be underdogs, but who live by a moral code and are strong enough to stand by it in the face of any opposition. Villains are best, I think, when they possess traits that we can easily recognize in ourselves, rendering them sympathetic, or conversely, when they’re so outright evil and pathological that they seem to be the embodiment of our darkest fears.
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 tend to need to feel some sympathy for my characters, at least at the beginning. Some of my most loathsome characters started out as rather sympathetic people, who took hold of their own story and showed me just how evil they could become. But for the most part, even when I set out to write an evil character, he/she will surprise me with a softer side of his/her personality, and I’ll wind up empathizing with them, at least somewhat.
I like to know what’s motivating my bad guys, since they’re such a central part of my books. They occupy equal space with the cops, and I need to know what’s driving a character if I’m going to spend half the book writing about him.
Owen Laukkanen’s 2012 debut, The Professionals, was named one of the top 100 novels of the year by Kirkus Reviews, and one of 2012's best debuts by Mystery Scene Magazine. A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program, Laukkanen spent three years in the world of professional poker reporting before turning to fiction. His most recent book is Criminal Enterprise (2013). Laukkanen lives in Vancouver where he’s currently working on the third and fourth installments in the Stevens and Windermere series.