An 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.