Characters in Crime
Sympathy for the devil
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.
Former criminal defence lawyer and novelist Peggy Blair on the need to have a sense of why villains are compelled to act as they do.
Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
Arkady Renkov in Martin Cruz Smith’s series, because he’s jaded and cynical but dedicated to finding the truth in his investigations.
Who is your favourite villain? What is it that makes them particularly villainous?
The Preacher in the James Lee Burke novel, Rain Gods. He runs so counter to type—every time you think he’s going to zig, he ends up zagging. Complex, multi-layered, intelligent, fascinating.
How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work?
I have no idea. I think they’re all in some parallel universe somewhere; they just let me eavesdrop on their actions and conversations from time to time.
What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels?
They have to be somewhat larger than life to be interesting, but grounded in fact to be believable.
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 think loathesome characters aren’t very interesting. We have to have some sympathy for our villains; some sense of where they came from and why they feel compelled to act as they do. I always pretend I’m a criminal defence lawyer again, explaining to a judge why my client turned out this way. We all start life as children.
Peggy Blair was a lawyer for more than thirty years. A recognized expert in Aboriginal law, she also worked as a criminal defence lawyer and Crown prosecutor. She spent a Christmas in Old Havana where she watched the bored young policemen lean on light posts on the street corners along the Malecon, visited most of Hemingway’s favourite bars, and learned to make the perfect mojito. A former member of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, she is named in Canadian Who’s Who. She currently lives in Ottawa.