One of the things about real-life humans is that we all have our vulnerabilities. I don’t personally know anyone who has no physical limitations, even among people who are young and in good health. There’s just about always something, whether it’s allergies, myopia, or something else that limits a person. And sometimes it’s not even a physical limitation.
That’s one reason for which it’s so refreshing when fictional characters also have those vulnerabilities. I’m not talking here of the sort of psychological vulnerability that you see in, say, ‘stalker’ novels or novels where characters have suffered emotional trauma. Rather, I’m talking of those everyday limitations that make characters seem more human.
For instance, Agatha Christie fans will know that her Hercule Poirot is very particular about the way he dresses. And that includes his shoes. The trouble is of course that sometimes, fashionable shoes are not comfortable. So Poirot isn’t one to walk for long distances when he can avoid it. When he can’t, he pays the price. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot travels to the small town of Woodleigh Common to help his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, solve the drowning murder of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. At one point, Poirot has to take a bit of a long walk to visit Mrs. Oliver at the home of her host Judith Butler:
‘Mrs. Oliver waited until Poirot approached.
‘Come here,’ she said, ‘and sit down. What’s the matter with you? You look upset.’
‘My feet are extremely painful,’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘It’s those awful tight patent leather shoes of yours,’ said Mrs. Oliver.
She’s right. As it is, Poirot is not exactly in marathon-running form. And a painful pair of shoes makes it all worse. It also adds a little to his humanity. If you’ve ever worn a pair of shoes that pinched your feet, you know what that’s like.
Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is also not in top physical condition. To put it bluntly, he’s quite heavy, as fans will know. Of course, he’s made accommodations for that. He has an elevator that takes him to the different parts of his house, so that he doesn’t have to puff up staircases. He doesn’t go running around after suspects (Archie Goodwin, Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather do that). And limitations or no, he’s a brilliant detective. But the point is that he has vulnerabilities. And as cantankerous and eccentric as Wolfe can be, that aspect of his character makes him more accessible.
The same could be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is, as McCall Smith puts it, ‘a traditionally built lady.’ She can’t go running after people or engage in really strenuous physical activity. In that sense, she’s limited. And sometimes, she feels limited in another way. For instance, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she is following a young teenage girl whose father is worried that she may have a secret boyfriend. Mma. Ramotswe stops to admire a rack of African-print blouses:
“Buy one of these, Mma.’ said the woman. ‘Very good blouses. They never run. Look, this one I’m wearing has been washed ten, twenty times and hasn’t run. Look.’…
‘You wouldn’t have my size,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘I need a very big blouse.’
The trader checked her rack and then looked at Mma. Ramotswe again.
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You are too big for these blouses. Far too big.”
Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable with her size for the most part, and with herself. She is also certainly comfortable wearing clothes that are suited to her build. But she is also realistically limited by it.
Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer is no longer a young man. But for the most part, he’s in fairly good physical shape. He even goes skydiving at times. But he has his limitations too. In his case, it’s eczema, which especially flares up when he’s under severe work stress. Sejer doesn’t obsess about it; he uses medicated cream and gets on with life. But that little touch of vulnerability adds a human aspect to his character that makes him more approachable. You could say the same of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. She’s a terrific and skilled detective. But she’s – erm – no longer twenty, and she’s not in top physical condition. What’s more, she too has eczema. Those little details, since they are realistically depicted (‘though not overdone) make her more accessible.
As we age, of course, those little ‘creaks and groans’ get more frequent. And there are several older fictional characters (you could name lots more than I could, I know) who show those age-related limitations. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is in her eighties. She’s not in particularly bad condition. As a matter of fact, given her age, she’s fairly healthy. But she uses a cane. She can’t walk very quickly, and she tires more easily than a younger person would. Those things don’t make her any less of a smart, skilled sleuth, but they are everyday vulnerabilities that she has to take into account. And she’s all the more human for it.
Of course, not all vulnerabilities are physical (or even psychological). For example, Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is young and physically healthy. She’s also not crippled by phobias or other psychological issues. But she is limited by not driving. In Toronto of course, one can take public transit to lots of different places. But that means one can’t really set one’s own schedule. And there are places that aren’t as easily accessible via a train or a bus. In those cases, Jackson often depends on rides. Fans will know that she’s working with a driving instructor – when she can. But her lack of freedom to just hop into a car and get where she’s going does limit her. And that makes her both vulnerable and human.
There’s always a risk in giving a character limitations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a sleuth or major character a helpless victim, and that can be both melodramatic and very much overdone. It’s also easy if one’s not careful to go on and on too much about whatever vulnerability the sleuth may have. That can be tiresome. But when it’s done deftly and with restraint, giving a sleuth or major character some sort of limitation can make that character a lot more credible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to look for my specs…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.