For a couple of weeks, I opined about half of the mystery equation: plot. Today I thought I'd think out loud about the other half of the equation: character.
I'm tempted to ask (and answer) the rhetorical question: What makes for a good character? But I don't like that word, "good." There's a sort of moral judgment that goes along with it: Characters don't have to be good, morally, to be effective as characters. So I suppose the question should be: How do you populate your pages with characters that grab hold of readers? I think characters like Dexter and Hannibal Lecter have shown us that not every protag need be syrupy sweet (or even sane, for that matter). Let me suggest, then, that the best characters are:
1. MYSTERIOUS. In a lot of manuscripts I see, the protagonist's life is an open book from page one. Let's say our main character, Prunella Smythe-Hummingford, enters the ballroom on page one. For some reason, many writers are compelled to move instantly into PS-H's childhood, relationship with her parents, neuroses, and the specific highways and byways she took to get to this particular ballroom. But I don't want (or need) to know all about Prunella in that first chapter. I want parts of her to be unexplained. Why does she keep touching that emerald necklace nervously? I'd prefer to find out in Chapter 10 rather than on page 2. Why is she avoiding Eustacia Burford-Leavenworth? Again, I'd rather develop an idea about it on page 3, only to be proven wrong in Chapter 8. In fiction as in life, everyone's hiding something, whether it's a secret or an "unacceptable emotion," or something even deeper yet. I like to see the novel as a gradual unfolding of the main character, as well as some of the supporting cast, rather than the "Here's my protagonist's life story in Chapter 1, now let's get on with the murder" approach. The best crime fiction, I think, has a few characters who are at least as mysterious, or as unexplained, as the events.
2. DRIVEN. Characters, just like people in real life, have to be driven by something. It could be something as simple as money or as complicated as a traumatic childhood. This is just as true for supporting characters as it is for main characters. When they get out of bed in the morning, they are thinking about SOMETHING - and I would like to gradually come to understand what that something is.
3. INTELLIGENT. I've mentioned this before; I think the reading public has zero tolerance for dumb main or supporting characters, unless they're there for comic relief. Even if the character doesn't have a formal education, s/he should have some sort of street savvy, or be good at something. Easy Rawlins' aide-de-camp, Mouse, isn't moral, but he's very effective at what he does on the shady side of the law. Criminals have to be intelligent, too; or it would be much too easy to apprehend them. (If any of you out there are fans of Dell Shannon, you'll remember how many of her perps were just dumb, and this led the cops straight to them. Of course, those books were police procedurals juggling sometimes half a dozen plots. The modern crime novel doesn't usually juggle quite so many strands.) Intelligent characters also have the benefit of giving the reader a challenge to keep up with them, and I do think most crime aficionados enjoy this challenge.
4. NOT FULLY PREDICTABLE. People (not me, of course) say that marriages become boring because they often become so predictable. Characters can remain true to their core values or core personality but still do unpredictable things that take the plot into intriguing new directions. Even Mma Ramotswe, she of the predictable earthy good wisdom, sometimes does the unexpected (which, I believe, is part of the delight of reading about her). But I beg you, please do not have a person do something completely out of character to further the plot. I've seen this happen a little too often lately; and what could have been quite a good book ends on a sour note.
5. GRADATED. By "gradated" (is that even a word?), I mean the character shows gradations, some shades of gray in key areas. Maybe a devoted husband and father has an extramarital affair. Not a good thing, of course, but such a lapse makes him human. Maybe a devoted mother is so frustrated with her daughter that she passive-aggressively "forgets" to pick the kid up at school and makes her walk home in the rain. Readers love these imperfections in character because they help us feel less guilty about our own shortcomings. (Sounds corny, but I believe it's true.)
6. INTRIGUING. It's tough to describe this in any more detail. An intriguing character is one who makes me think, "I'd like to know what's going on in HER head." One meets these types of people at parties sometimes, I find. I'm not much of a partygoer, but I have to attend them in my professional capacity, and every so often I will zero in on someone and think, "There's more there than meets the eye." It's easy to write about the loudmouth drunk who uses alcohol to hide his insecurities. That type of character isn't interesting to me because it's so obvious what he's all about. But that person at the party who's clearly mismatched with her date, or the obviously beautiful woman with an unexplained air of hostility -- hmmm, now there's someone interesting.
7.LIKABLE. I hate to close the list with this word, because I see so many manuscripts in which the author is working like a demon to make his protag "likable." Now let me go on record as saying that a likable protagonist is an EXCELLENT thing. People buy series books because they LIKE the protagonists and want to follow along on their adventures. But likable doesn't have to mean perfect. Nobody is smart, sexy, perfectly built, kind, well-read, funny, and completely secure. So your protagonist shouldn't be, either. Kinsey M. has had a good run of being quite likable while also dealing with her issues with men, etc.