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.
Former private investigator and crime novelist Sean Chercover lets us in on how your villain is really just another protagonist who violently disagrees with your protagonist.
Who is your favourite sleuth from a crime novel?
I’ve been influenced by so many great sleuths, and I’ve never been good at ranking the things I love. But since there’s a gun to my head, I’ll go with Lawrence Block’s terrific New York PI, Matt Scudder. Perhaps more than any other fictional sleuth, Scudder feels like a complete person to me. Deeply flawed, sometimes self-destructive, fighting his way from darkness to light, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
Who is your favourite villain? What is it that makes them particularly villainous?
Even harder to pick a favourite villain. I’ll go with a three-way tie: Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Rashkolnikov, and George Orwell’s O’Brien. Ripley and Rashkolnikov are protagonist-villains—an incredibly difficult feat for a writer to pull off successfully—and their thought process is truly chilling. O’Brien is brilliant for his unflinching cynicism—he’s completely aware of the evil of his actions, but he never becomes a moustache-twister.
How do you go about creating the character of the bad guy/good guy in your work?
First I try to see them beyond their roles as bad guy/good guy. Each character is the hero of his own story, the protagonist of her own life. So your antagonist is really just another protagonist who violently disagrees with your protagonist.
What are some of the elements that make good characters in crime novels?
I think it’s the same criteria that make good characters in any novel. Good characters are fleshed-out. They’re not on the page just to solve a problem or oppose your protagonist or present one side of a debate. And while their actions may be categorized as good or evil, the characters themselves are best approached as a mix of healthy and unhealthy, whole and broken.
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?
The most resonant characters are usually those with which we sympathize, but I think you can also create successful characters we just love to loathe. And while I think it’s important for the writer to understand what motivates the bad guys, many successful villains are enigmas for the reader, which can be part of the fun.
Sean Chercover is a dual citizen, born to a Canadian father and an American mother. He grew up in Toronto and spent childhood summers in Georgia. After earning a Liberal Arts degree from Columbia College Chicago, he worked as a private investigator in Chicago and New Orleans. Sean is the author of the crime novels Big City Bad Blood, Trigger City, and The Trinity Game, which is currently shortlisted for the Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writers, and for the Arthur Ellis Award by the Crime Writers of Canada. Sean has published in numerous anthologies, and his work has received the Anthony, Shamus, CWA Dagger, Dilys, Crimespree, Gumshoe and Lovey awards.