The old expression, ‘everything in moderation’ makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. We all know what happens when you go beyond a judicious amount of food, or exercise too much, or have too much to drink. Moderate speed gets you where you’re going. Taking that too far gets you a speeding violation, or worse.
It’s the same way with personality traits, really. And that’s what can make a fictional character really interesting. The same trait that can be appealing in moderate doses can create all sorts of problems if it’s taken too far. That fact can add nuance to fictional characters, and a layer of suspense to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, we are introduced to Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and has every expectation of a comfortable future. Then, she gets an anonymous note that suggests that someone is trying to win over her wealthy Aunt Laura, from whom she is set to inherit a fortune. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she is accustomed to having money. So, she and Roddy decide to visit Aunt Laura at the family home, Hunterbury. There, they have a reunion with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. They soon learn that Aunt Laura has become very fond of Mary, and that Mary may be the person referred to in the letter. Along with that, Roddy is immediately infatuated with Mary, and Elinor has to face the fact that her engagement may very well be over. What Elinor hasn’t told anyone is that her feelings for Roddy are a lot stronger than she’s let on. Although she tells her Aunt Laura that she loves Roddy ‘enough, but not too much,’ that’s not really the case. So, when Mary dies of what turns out to be poison, Elinor has two motives. Dr. Peter Lord, the local GP, is in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees to look into the case, and finds out that more than one person could have wanted Mary dead. I won’t mention titles, for fear of spoilers, but there’s another Agatha Christie novel where devotion to a loved one is taken very much too far, and leads to more than one murder.
It’s not just that sort of devotion that can be taken too far. Most of us would say that it’s a sign of good parenting to support one’s children and nurture their gifts. But that, too, can become problematic. We’ve all seen or heard of ‘football parents,’ or ‘stage parents.’ There’s a real sense of that in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has had rare musical talent from a very early age. And, at twenty-eight, he’s a world-class violinist. Then one day, he’s terrified to discover that he can no longer play. He decides to get psychiatric help to find out what is blocking him. As he’s going through therapy, we learn that, years earlier, his two-year-old sister Sonia drowned. That terrible day had consequences for many people, and it has played its role in Gideon’s mental state. So has the fact that Gideon’s been under a great deal of family pressure for a long time because of his talent. He hasn’t really had a chance to live what most of us would call a normal life. There are a lot of other examples, too of this kind of parenting. For instance, Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ at beauty pageants and the parents who go to great lengths to be sure their children win.
Sometimes, the same traits that can spell success in a profession can also be taken too far. For instance, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, we are introduced to Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing well as the co-host of Saturday Night, and is well on her way to the top, as the saying goes. But she’s looking for that one story that will make her career. She thinks she finds it in the person of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. There are now some hints that Bligh could be innocent. If he is, then this could be exactly the story Thorne needs. Thorne is determined, persistent, and eager to get the story right – all good qualities in a journalist. But she finds herself getting closer to the story than is prudent, and we see how all of those good qualities also have their downsides.
In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. He takes probationer Lucy Howard with him, and the two approach the house. Tragically, White is murdered. Howard didn’t see the killing; she was at the front of the house, and White was at the rear. But it’s common belief that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the justice system for some time. As the police investigate, we see what an important role loyalty plays among the police. It’s a valuable trait if you’re a police officer. Your fellow coppers need to know that they can trust you, and that you’re loyal to them. But we’ve all read enough crime fiction to know that sometimes, police loyalty goes too far.
Fans of medical thrillers such as Michael Palmer’s and Robin Cook’s will know that many of them feature doctors or other medical professionals who are fanatically dedicated to the research they’re doing. Research is essential to moving us along as a society. However, unrestrained research that doesn’t take into account the human side, if I may put it that way, is a different matter.
There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who have what many of us would consider positive traits, but who take them too far. This can add real tension to a crime novel, and can serve as an interesting layer of character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.