Showing posts with label protagonists. Show all posts
Showing posts with label protagonists. Show all posts

Aug 15, 2016

Why Did the Amateur Sleuth Cross the Road?

Unless an author writes only police procedurals and P.I. novels, the question of why the protagonist gets involved in the mystery is present. I've never in my life wanted to investigate a murder, and I'm guessing most readers would say the same. We trust the police to do an adequate job, and while we might grumble that they didn't turn every stone in a specific case, we seldom jump in to help.

If you're going to write a mystery with an amateur sleuth, he or she has to have a reason to get involved that departs from what is good behavior and good sense in real life.

Loser wants to help the father of a little girl who reminds her of her daughter.

Caroline is suspected of killing her former best friend.
Many authors choose to have their protag or someone close to him as the suspect. This is certainly a driving force, as long as the rules of logic are applied. If you're accused of murder, are the people involved in the case likely to sit down with you and talk about it? And why would they be honest? It isn't like you can arrest them for perjury. If you testified in court that someone confessed to you, his lawyer would have you for lunch. "So you are a suspect in this case, but you want us to believe that Mr. X confessed to you that he did it. How convenient for you!"

Four vagrants witness a murder but can't report it to the police.

Another scenario is that the protagonist has special knowledge of the crime that he can't/won't share with the police, or he shares his info and they ignore it. If that were so, I suspect most of us would rationalize our way out of investigating on our own. "Well, yes, I did see Mr. X leaving the scene of the crime, but the police asked him about it, and he claims he was in Hoboken." End of story. Most of us don't have the time, the temperament, or the drive to chase down criminals. We'd grumble, "Nobody ever listens to me," and forget about it.

Princess Elizabeth wants to stop a killer.
Finally, there's the nosy protagonist who simply can't stay out of other people's business. I find these the hardest to relate to, and I've given up on books when the amateur sleuth's pushy behavior didn't make sense. The book I'm reading right now comes close, with a woman who travels all over England questioning people about a death she has no connection to. Her family keeps telling her not to do it, and she's been attacked several times now, but she's determined (dad-gum-it) and just won't stop. Luckily the author presents her as determined and stubborn, so her refusal to give up is at least tenable.

In defense of authors, we need a story, the story needs a protagonist, and the protagonist needs to keep going when the police either stop investigating or never really begin. My concern is with how well the author sets up the story. In the beginning, can I believe this person would take up the challenge of a murder investigation, and as we go onward, do I still like him or her because of it?

Feb 2, 2015

Protagonists Who Are Difficult to Like

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There's been a lot of discussion on mystery readers' sites lately about books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Some pan them because the protagonists aren't very likeable; others claim they brilliantly reflect the realities of life. The fact that The Gold Finch won literature's highest reward indicates that reflecting reality is a big deal for the important voices in publishing and reading.

I read The Girl on the Train last week, and I have to say it was well done. I was drawn into the woman's blurry world, and I guess I understand better now what it's like to be an alcoholic, promising yourself you'll do better tomorrow while you pour yourself another drink today. I never read Gone Girl, having heard there was no one to like in the book, and I stopped just over halfway through The Gold Finch, tired of the young man's spiral downward to the point that each time I set it down, I didn't want to pick it up again.  Whether that makes me a low-class reader or not I don't know, but in any movie I watch or book I read, I want someone I can cheer for, someone I like.

That's not to say I don't enjoy a protagonist with issues. I fell in love with Craig Johnson's books because Walt Longmire was so troubled in the first one, and Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight and the Todds' Ian Rutledge grabbed me for the same reasons. In those books, however, the protagonist tries to assure that the problem he has doesn't make the situation (whatever the mystery is) worse for others. It only makes things harder for him personally.

Loser, my homeless protagonist, is that type. She's got lots of issues, but she's desperate not to inflict them on others. For me that signals the type of nobility required of an appealing protagonist: a lack of selfishness. The boy in The Gold Finch and the woman in The Girl on the Train are so wrapped up in themselves that they make others pay for their hurt and anguish. Yes, they have excuses, but so does Loser, so do Walt Longmire and Ian Rutledge. It's their determination not to inflict their hurt on anyone else that makes them, for me anyway, worthy protagonists, people with whom I can spend a few hours of my time without feeling I've wasted it.

So while I admit to the talent of writers who can accurately portray unlikeable characters, when those characters are protagonists I'm left feeling vaguely unhappy at the end. There are already messed-up people in the world who are beyond caring whom they hurt. I prefer those who, though troubled, work to make the world better, even as they wrestle with their own demons.

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