But I See Your True Colors Shining Through*

Authors and CreationsAn interesting comment exchange with Prashant Trikannad at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has got me thinking about the relationship between authors and the characters they create. Before I go on about that, let me give you a minute to visit Prashant’s excellent blog and follow it if you aren’t already doing so. It’s a great resource for among other things interesting discussions of classic novels.

Back now? Thanks. Prashant made the point – and it’s a good one – that authors’ ways of looking at the world come through in their characters. That makes sense, since authors tap their experiences and points of view to tell their stories. This doesn’t mean of course that a character must be exactly like the author. In fact, a lot of crime fiction protagonists are quite different to their creators. But in some way, most authors show us who they are when they write.

For instance, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle patterned him in many ways after Dr. James Bell, a prominent surgeon whom Conan Doyle met while he was studying in Edinburgh. But Conan Doyle’s own self comes through in more ways than just his experience with Bell. Conan Doyle has said that he created Sherlock Holmes because he had had enough of fictional detectives who relied purely on intuition and luck to solve their cases. He wanted to show the role that science and logic can play in detection. And anyone who’s read Sherlock Holmes can tell you that Holmes solves his cases by looking at evidence, by using science and by making logical deductions. So in that way, Conan Doyle’s way of thinking is woven all through the Holmes stories.

Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Ariadne Oliver is said to be Christie’s way of poking fun at herself and of expressing her own views about, among other things, writing. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Mrs. Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny to work with local playwright Robin Upward on a stage adaptation of one of her novels. To say the least, the process doesn’t go smoothly so Oliver is glad for the distraction when she learns that Hercule Poirot is taking another look at a murder that occurred in the village. She does her own share of investigating and even though she doesn’t come up with the main clues, her insights are helpful. Here is what she says about her sleuth Sven Hjerson during a conversation with Upward:


‘You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.’


Oliver’s opinion of Sven Hjerson is said to be a reflection of Christie’s own view of her Hercule Poirot. She got quite fed up with Poirot, but her fans kept wanting more, so she obliged them.

Sara Paretsky has long been an advocate for social justice. She’s been active in many causes and efforts to benefit those who’ve been marginalised by society. She is also a native of Chicago. So it shouldn’t be surprising that her passion for social justice is woven through her Chicago-based series featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski. For instance, in Hard Time, Warshawski is on her way home from a big event with her assistant Mary Louise Neely and Mary Louise’s protégée Emily Messenger. When they see a woman lying in the road, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run incident, Warshawski insists on stopping to help. The woman Nicola Aguinaldo dies in emergency surgery and for a time, it’s believed that Warshawski is responsible for killing her. Warshawski is determined to find out who the real killer is and why she’s being framed so she begins to ask questions. Her search for answers leads her to ugly corruption in the prison security system. And this is only one example of the many facets of social justice that Paretsky explores in her V.I. Warshawski novels.

Anthony Bidulka is a Saskatchewan native who’s created two crime fiction series. One, featuring disaster recovery expert Adam Saint, is set to launch later this year and I am very excited about that. The other features PI Russell Quant who, like his creator, lives in Saskatchewan. Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) who decided that being a police officer wasn’t for him. So in Amuse Bouche we learn that he’s hung out his PI shingle. Like Bidulka, Quant likes to travel and a trip to at least one other place features in just about all of the Russell Quant novels. He’s also fond of good wine and food although he’s not the ‘foodie’ that, say, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is. Of course there are differences between Bidulka and Quant as there are between any author and his or her creation. But it’s easy to see (and I mean this as a compliment) the way Bidulka’s mindset, interests and so on are reflected in the Quant stories.

That’s also true of Angela Savage’s stories featuring her PI Jayne Keeney. Like Savage, Keeney is a native of Australia. She now lives and works in Bangkok and her understanding of Thailand and its people reflects Savage’s own interest in that part of Asia. In both Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half Child (The Dead Beach is coming out later this year), we see how Keeney uses her understanding of Thailand and its culture, people and language to solve cases. Through Keeney’s eyes too we get a look at what it’s like to be a farang (a Westerner) in Thailand. Like her creator, Keeney is an avid reader who enjoys (but isn’t limited to) crime fiction. Also like her creator, Keeney is interested in the larger social issues that are behind the cases she solves.

And those are only a few examples of the way authors’ mindsets and ways of thinking come through in what they write. I’m sure you could think of a lot more connections between what you know of authors and what you know of their work than I could. It makes sense too. An author’s work is a part of that author, so of course in at least some way, it reflects that author’s personality and identity. If you’re a writer, do you see yourself coming through in your characters? Thank you Prashant for the inspiration.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Steinberg and Tom Kelly’s True Colors, first made popular by Cyndi Lauper.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sara Paretsky

18 responses to “But I See Your True Colors Shining Through*

  1. I think of Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey as being the really opinionated authors – I don’t think it’s hard to guess from their books what they think of certain subjects. And (I may be wrong…) I think they tend to give the ‘right’ (in their view) opinions to the good characters and vice versa. I love them both, but it’s more interesting if the opinions are less guessable…
    PS one of my very favourite songs!

    • Moira – I hadn’t thought about it that way but you’re quite right. Both Sayers and Tey leave no room for misunderstanding their points of view. And certainly one way to do that is to give traits we admire or views we share to the ‘good guys’ and traits we dislike or views we disagree with to the ‘bad guys.’ Clear connection between author and stories in those cases! And I’m glad you like the song; I’ve always thought it lovely too.

  2. Good point Margot (and Prashant) – and for me as a reader it certainly makes me take the author’s efforts more seriously if I think they are engaging with their fictional creations to the extent of investing them with something really personal that they truly identify with. Not always easy to discern without hindsight of course … David Pirie has written 2 or 3 novels I think about the relationship between the young Doyle and Joseph Bell (taken from his MURDER ROOMS TV series) which i thought were pretty good actually though they take it as writ that Bell was more than a simple inspiration for Doyle and was the actual model for the character, which not all will agree with I suspect.

    • Sergio – Thank you. I know what you mean too about taking an author’s work seriously. When I can see that an author has made a real investment in the story and characters, I’m more willing to do so as well. And one way authors make that investment is by putting themselves in some way into what they write. As to Pirie’s work, I think it’s interesting that he’s exploring the Doyle/Bell relationship. Of course I couldn’t possibly speak for Conan Doyle but I know for myself as an author, I may be inspired by a real person, but using her or him as an actual model? Not so much. Other authors of course may do things differently.

  3. Another terrific post, Margot. You choose such interesting topics and write so well!

    The relationship between authors and their characters was the subject of a panel at last year’s Crime & Justice Festival in Melbourne.

    Ian Rankin who was one of the panellists suggested for the writer, ‘it is therapeutic to give your heroes attributes you don’t have, a kind of wish fulfilment.’

    I think there’s something in that. Yes, there’s a degree of shared experience between the author and their character(s) that lends the writing authenticity. But there’s also liberation in allowing your characters to make the sorts of choices the author wouldn’t make. Jayne Keeney not only speaks better Thai than I do, she is also much more hard nosed than me. In real life, I’m conflict averse!

    My post on the festival panel is here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/crime-justice-festival-2012-debrief-part-2/

    • Angela – First, thanks for the kind words – that means a lot to me. I really like what Rankin said about writers and their characters. There’s definitely truth to the idea that we get some of our own dreams out of our systems if that’s the way to put it when we create characters who have traits we don’t. There is a therapy in that. And it’s interesting to reflect on the similarities and differences between ourselves and our characters because it shows us sides of ourselves. Thanks too for the reminder of your post about the festival. One of these years I would like very much to attend. I always hear such good things coming out of the Melbourne Crime and Justice Festival.
      And you’re not the only one who likes to avoid conflict when it’s at all possible…

  4. PS Can’t tell you what a buzz it is seeing my photo alongside Sir Arthur & Dame Agatha!

  5. Interesting subject, Margot. You have featured two authors that I am looking forward to reading for the first time this year: Angela Savage and Anthony Bidulka. And one I hope to return to: Sara Paretsky. Lots of interesting reading ahead.

    • Tracy – Thank you. And I think you’ll enjoy both Bidulka’s and Savage’s work. Both are talented and both have created interesting characters and mysteries. And as for Sara Paretsky? She paved the way for so many authors who’ve written in the last few decades. I have a lot to learn from her.

  6. I think from a writing point of view, it would be difficult for little parts of yourself not to seep out onto the page. I never realised Agatha Christie was fed up with Poirot though. That saddens me a little because everyone loved him so much, but she who created him, didn’t.

    • Rebecca – Oh, I agree; it would be hard to write and not have bits and pieces of oneself come through in the story. I don’t think I could. And as to Christie’s feelings about Poirot, from what I’ve read, she didn’t start out disliking him, but she got tired of him. The public, however, didn’t. Poirot has some maddening traits but I’ve always seen his appeal.

  7. Margot: In real life Arthur Conan Doyle also fought to right injustice and overturn wrongful convictions as set out in The True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    With regard to Anthony Bidulka I have met Anthony’s mother and know well one of his sisters. His real mother strongly reminds me of his Russell’s fictional mother. His real sister is nothing like the fictional sister.

    Jill Edmondson has drawn upon many real life experiences for her sleuth, Sasha Jackson. Her bartending experience produced one of the funniest scenes I have read in a long time in The Lies Have It. Suffice to say it involves a S & M party where a patron barely clad draws forth a credit card to pay for his drink.

    • Bill – I think it’s terrific that you’ve had the chance to meet Anthony Bidulka’s family. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet the families of authors whose work I like.
      And thanks for reminding me both of Conan Doyle’s real-life fight against injustice. Certainly that part of his mindset is woven through the Sherlock Holmes stories. And now that you mention it, I remember that Jill Edmondson has mentioned having bar tending experience and I’m not surprised that some of what she saw found its way into her novels. That incident in The Lies Have It really is funny so I”m glad you reminded me of it.

  8. kathy d.

    One can definitely see Sara Paretsky’s views in her character, V.I. Warshawski, however, I dare say that the author may also be vicariously enjoying the many daring exploits of her heroine. When V.I. jumps into the Chicago Canal, hides out on a dangerous pier, ventures into a sweatshop, hunts for murderers, I think all of us, author included, are wishing we could do these brave acts.
    Jayne Keeney, as written by Angela Savage, is another brave soul, putting herself in danger to solve a case. We probably wish we could just do something to right a wrong regardless of the risks.
    And Russell Quant? He takes some risks but is so funny that one must laugh at his investigations. His Ukrainian mother’s mindset is poignant, yet humorous. (The food, forget it. I gained weight just reading the descriptions.)

    • Kathy – You have an interesting point. On the one hand, there is a part of any author in what s/he writes. On the other hand, characters are different enough and do different enough things that you really could say the author lives through them vicariously. And that’s part of the pleasure of writing too – having your characters be able to do and experience things you won’t be able to do or experience.

  9. Yes Prashant’s blog is great isn’t it? when I think of author’s views on the world coming through in their books, the Martin Beck series immediately springs to mind. I appreciate it’s not particularly hidden – they are clearly out to shine a spotlight on Swedish society, but it is very well done.

    • Sarah – Agreed about the Martin Beck series. It’s very, very clear when one reads those novels what the authors think. That’s a classic example for which thanks. And yes, Prashant has a great blog.

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