I Want You Just the Way You Are*

LimitationsOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jill Edmondson, Karin Fossum, Rex Stout

34 responses to “I Want You Just the Way You Are*

  1. Well, it’s too obvious to mention Miss Marple, who is of a certain age and therefore not quite as sprightly as she might once have been. For a limitation which has a rather serious outcome, I have to think of the film ‘Vertigo’ of course. I think a fear of heights would be a problem for many detectives – but perhaps not more so than a phobia for blood.

    • I think that’s a great example, Marina Sofia. There are lots of sleuths and other major fictional characters who have phobias such as that one or agoraphobia or claustrophobia. And those can indeed impose limitations.

  2. Clarissa Draper

    That’s one of the reasons I love Vera Stanhope, a Ann Cleeves character. She’s an overweight, older lady detective and yet so brilliant!

  3. There are so many examples out there of those with major health issues too…like Monk and his OCD and Jeffrey Deaver’s quadriplegic ex-cop.

    • That’s quite true, Pat. And I think it’s good for the genre that there are so many different kinds of sleuths out there. Sleuths who have real-life limitations, whether they’re minor (like eczema) or major (like quadriplegia) are simply more reflective of real people.

  4. Kay

    I like Elly Griffiths’ character, Ruth Galloway. She’s definitely not a svelte person. She’s OK with it though. And I thought of Karin Slaughter’s state police officer Will Trent. He has severe dyslexia, really almost cannot read at all, but he manages in all kinds of ways. Very interesting topic. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kay. And you’re right about Ruth Galloway. She’s not svelte; and what’s more, she has occasional ‘creaks and groans,’ as we all do when we’re no longer – erm – twenty. And yet, as you say, she doesn’t obsess about it. In that sense she’s like Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She, too, has those ‘I’m no longer in my twenties’ moments. Both characters are all the more human for it. And so is Will Trent (for which also thanks). He’s more accessible because he can’t ‘do it all.’

  5. I was just reading about Elizabeth Spann Craig’s character, Myrtle Clover, this morning. On her website it says since the author made her eighty in the first book she no longer ages. Of course, this doesn’t make the books any less fantastic. I just found it funny. And it made me look at my own books and think, what if I had ten more books to these series? I had two of them start in the years 2013 and 2014, so they would become sci-fi after a while– not something I want. Back to your post. I love the idea of having the MC suffer with eczema. I hadn’t thought of that ailment before. Is it used much?

    • Ngaio Marsh did the same with Alleyn & Troy et al. 🙂 They were already “middle-aged” when the series started in the 30’s. No doubt she never imagined she’d be writing CID mysteries for so long.

      Will Thomas’ character Thomas Llewelyn has three disadvantages as an investigator: he’s small, Welsh, and an ex-convict. Oh how I wish that series would be adapted for film. I think Daniel Radcliffe and Liam Neeson would be great in it.

      • ChaCha1 – Oh, I’d like to see that series brought to film, too! It would be great to see how it would look on-screen. You make a really interesting point about Llewelyn’s challenges too. In that place, at that time, being small and Welsh is trouble enough. Being an ex-convict certainly doesn’t help matters. And what I like about the way Thomas handles it is that he doesn’t have Llewelyn forever bemoaning his fate. He works around it, just as people who have poor eyesight or something else work around it.
        Oh, and that’s an interesting point about Alleyn and Troy. 🙂

    • Sue – That is an interesting way to think about one’s books. What happens if the series goes on? Do we let our characters age or not? And beyond that, what sorts of stories will we tell. I agree that Elizabeth’s decision not to have her character age makes sense considering Myrtle Clover’s age in Book 1. And as you say, the stories are great regardless. As far as eczema goes, I’ve only read a couple novels in which we see that. But it’s a common enough issue that people face that it wouldn’t at all be surprising in a character.

  6. I’ve heard Michael Robotham say he might not have given his series star Joe O’Loughlin Parkinson’s disease if he’d known one book would turn into a long-running series. But I like the way the author has built Joe’s disease and the limitations it imposes on him into the stories. Apart from adding an interesting layer to the books I think anything that helps to ‘normalise’ disability and difference is a good thing for us all and having a diversity of these types of characters in literature can only help.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Bernadette. In the Joe O’Loughlin case, it does add interesting depths to his character. And in my opinion anyway, Robotham handles it without going on and on and on about to the point of tedium. Nor does he play the ‘sympathy’ card. That, to me, makes his handling of it all the more effective. Beyond that, it is refreshing to see disabilities (and more minor issues too) be treated as normal (whatever that is, anyway!). The more the genre reflects who we are as a species, the better, in my opinion.

  7. I love this post. Making the protagonist more human is something that should definitely be done and as already been said, it doesn’t need to need to be laid on with a trowel to make it realistic. I love Will Trent’s dyslexia. I also loved Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer where her protagonist lived with Aspergers. It was a fabulously done novel but not part of a series.

    • Rebecca – Thank you. And I completely agree about Rubbernecker. I think Bauer did a terrific job of portraying Patrick’s Asperger’s Syndrome. On the one hand, it’s very real. On the other, she doesn’t, as you say, lay it on with a trowel. You make a well-taken point too that those minor (and sometimes not-so-minor) limitations are part of our human experience. The more they’re de-mystified and treated as matter-of-fact issues, the better, not just for the genre, but also for our perceptions.

  8. Margot: Decker Roberts, in the Junction Chronicles by David Roseberg, is a synaesthete with the innate gift/curse of the ability to tell if someone is telling the truth. Synaethetes have become one of the latest means for authors to venture into the paranormal in mysteries.

    In real life one of America’s most prominent trial lawyers, David Boies, is dyslexic. Here is a link to a video in which he discusses his dyslexia – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SYWiLDRDPc

    • Bill – I’m glad you’ve mentioned synaesthetes. There are people who have that ability (or is it, as you say, a curse?), and they can make fascinating fictional characters. It’s tricky I think to create such a character and make her or him believable. But there are people like that, and it’s really interesting in crime fiction.
      Thanks also for the informative video. I think it’s really helpful to know how real-life professionals go about coping with and working around those limitations. Folks, do check the video out.

  9. Col

    I don’t think you’re a Monk fan and I’ve not yet tried the books myself, but his OCD fits the profile of the post.

    • Col – Got it in one. I’m not a huge fan of Monk. But you are absolutely right that is character is a terrific example of exactly what I had in mined with this post.

  10. Kathy D.

    This is such a good topic. Frankly, I’m tired of the superman or superwoman sleuth who is very physically fit, dresses well, knows many languages — i.e., is perfect. Characters have to be more human so we can relate to them, whether they have disabilities or limitations, problems at home with spouse or children, hassles on the job, or any number of things.
    I like Ruth Galloway because she is human, is a single mother and has to juggle her job, child care and her home life — yet she is not “sveldt,” as you put it nor is she glamorous, nor physically fit. She is like a regular person.
    Vera Stanhope is also not glamorous or fit, and she is hardly sociable. But she is brilliant at detective work. As her assistant says, “She thinks, and I’m the legwork.” Great to see a woman portrayed that way.

    • Kathy – I think so too. And I couldn’t possibly agree more about the value of creating fictional characters who have limitations just like the rest of us. I do get very tired of fictional sleuths and other main characters who are always perfectly fit and who seem to be able to do everything. No-one I know in real life is like that.

  11. Some great examples both in the post and the comments. I agree Robotham handles the Parkinson’s disease element well, even taking into account improvements in treatment as the series goes on, if I remember correctly. That would be an issue with any disease or disability for an author, I’d think – medicine is moving at such a great pace these days it must require constant updating of research for each new book.

    • Oh, that’s a good point, FictionFan! In general, there are always new medical and scientific developments, and in particular, Robotham does include them. I think that makes O’Loughlin’s character more realistic. Of course, as you say, that means the author needs to stay updated on those developments and that takes extra work. But the payoff is a character who reflects what’s really going on.

  12. I need to read a book about PI Sasha Jackson as I have a problem being in cars – I do drive but like Miss Daisy and not more than I have to and I always have to warn people who offer me a lift as I’m an awful passenger! It’s probably why living on a small island with a low speed limit suits me best 😉

    • Cleo – Not everyone loves driving or does it well. And as you say, where you live, you don’t need to drive far or fast. You probably know this, but you’ve got company in the form of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Wolfe does not like things that move – including cars. That’s part of why it’s quite a lot of work to get him to leave his brownstone.

  13. I don’t know if it qualifies as a vulnerability, but Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters suffers from that frequent affliction of private detectives: always being short on money.

  14. There are a number of detectives in books set after WW1 who suffer from what we would probably call PTSD – Lord Peter Wimsey wasn’t immune, and detectives in books by Charles Todd and Rennie Airth.

    • PTSD is definitely limiting, and we see it with heartbreaking frequency in books like Tood’s, Airth’s and so on. What’s especially sad is that we see it so often in real life, too.

  15. Kathy D.

    You know what this post is going to do? Send me immediately to read book 7 in the Precious Ramotswe series and open up a box of treasures of Nero Wolfes for me to peruse while the rest of the U.S. watches the Super Bowl.

  16. I always enjoy mysteries where the protagonist is a bit different, and not perfectly proportioned or young and healthy. I have read about protagonists who have autism but I have not read any of those.

    • Tracy – I’m with you. I think it’s refreshing to read about a protagonist who’s, well, like the rest of us. Too much perfection just makes a protagonist either insufferable or inaccessible. I prefer characters with whom I can relate a little better.

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