You’re Almost Real*

A brilliant post from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about fictional writers’ fictional characters. If you think about it, t’s really not easy for an author to create a fictional character who creates a fictional character. It can be a challenge to keep the plot in focus, and to keep the cast of characters clear. But when it’s done well, it can add an interesting ‘picture within a picture’ effect to a story.

Brad’s post was about Agatha Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, whose sleuth is Sven Hjerson. And before I go on, let me strongly encourage you to read that post. You’ll be very, very glad that you did. Fans can tell you that Hjerson is Finnish. He’s a vegetarian, and a bit eccentric. In fact, Oliver gets thoroughly fed up with him. But, as she says, people like him. So, she continues to write about him. It’s true, of course, that Hjerson doesn’t solve any of Christie’s mysteries. But he’s an interesting fictional creation of one of her recurring characters.

And he’s not the only protagonist to play that sort of role. Martha Grimes’ series features Inspector Richard Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant. They’re the ones who do the investigating in the novels. But there’s another, even more fictional, character who makes an appearance in a few of the stories. In The Anodyne Necklace, we are introduced to mystery novelist Polly Praed, who lives in the village of Littlebourne. When a disappearance, a vicious attack, and a murder find their way into the village, Polly finds herself enmeshed in a real-life mystery. Her own creation is Detective Plod, who isn’t exactly the most scintillating of characters. In fact, Polly’s novels aren’t exactly compelling, either. But Melrose Plant pretends that he reads and enjoys them all. In The Old Wine Shades, he and Jury are working on the disappearance of a woman and her autistic son. At one point, Plant mentions that he hasn’t had much sleep. Jury says sarcastically,

‘‘I’ll bet. The coffee, the fire, the Times, the chair.’’
‘You sound like Polly’s Detective Plod. He lists things endlessly.’’ [Plant]

Plod may not be a fascinating character, but he exists to Polly Praed.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His series isn’t a thriller-like set of novels with lots of violence and so on. Instead, he’s created a ‘50s world featuring private investigator Nina Riley, who lives in an old Victorian house in Edinburgh. In part, he writes the series in the way he does, because he would like the world to be safer and well-ordered, as he perceives it was during those years. Canning’s novels are, perhaps, quite tame, as the saying goes. But they are popular, and his agent wants him to be a part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning doesn’t want to go, but his agent insists. What neither knows at the time is that this trip to Edinburgh will draw Canning into a web of fraud and murder, and push him farther out of his safe, comfortable world than he could have imagined.

And it’s not just fictional mystery novelists who create fictional characters. Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret, for instance, features Edmonton academic Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. She works as a sessional lecturer, so she doesn’t have much in the way of job security. But she loves what she does, and she’s been in the field (English literature) for twenty years, since she got her M.A. As the story opens, she’s at Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her help putting together a major alumni reunion event at the University of Alberta, where Craig got her degree. Craig agrees, and the two begin to work together. That’s when she learns a piece of disturbing news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is the very reclusive Margaret Ahlers, who was the subject of Craig’s M.A. thesis. And that’s how she knows that Ahlers died years ago. So, who is the author of this new novel? As the preparations for the event get underway, Craig starts looking into the mystery, and, in one major plot thread, we learn what happened twenty years earlier, when she was doing her thesis. We also learn about Ahlers’ novels, which were considered true literary achievements. Those novels feature a major character named Isabel, and as Craig follows Isabel’s story, she also learns the truth about Ahlers.

Of course, it never does to take a fictional protagonist too seriously. Just ask novelist Paul Sheldon, whom we meet in Stephen King’s Misery. He is driving through a heavy snowstorm when he has an accident in which he’s injured. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a devoted fan of his work. Grateful for her help, he decides to get back to work on his latest Victorian romance manuscript, which features his main character, Misery Chastain.  At first, it seems that all will be well. But then, Annie decides she doesn’t like the way in which the story is going. She has her own ideas for how this novel should develop, and she has her own ways of wanting to ensure that it goes her way. Her devotion to Misery ends up having disastrous consequences.

And that’s the thing about fictional creations of fictional characters. When they’re done well, even they can seem entirely real. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration! Now, please, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Brad’s excellent blog. Thoughtful, well-written, interesting discussions of crime fiction await you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Hassles’ Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make). Yes, that’s Billy Joel doing lead vocals. He was a member of the Hassles before he started his solo career.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Janice MacDonald, Kate Atkinson, Martha Grimes, Stephen King

20 responses to “You’re Almost Real*

  1. As always, Margot, you write a thoroughly engrossing post that is as interesting and intriguing as the books and authors you reference. Now, I’m off to read Brad’s post too. Thanks!

  2. Ouch! I cringed when I watched Annie take that sledgehammer to Sheldon’s legs (or feet?) in the movie. “Thanks for the memories,” as Bob Hope used to sing. Interesting post, Margot! 🙂

  3. What, Margot – you mean Sven Hjerson ISN’T real? I am shocked – but let’s not tell Brad 😉 . He’ll be so upset.

  4. Thank you, as always, Margot, for calling attention to my work. I have to add the wonderful world Anthony Horowitz created in The Magpie Murders: we got two mysteries for the price of one, the first set in the modern day world of publishing, and the second an actual Silver-age style whodunit featuring brilliant and eccentric sleuth, Atticus Pund. The whole thing was a delight.

    • It’s my pleasure, Brad, as ever, to plug your work. And thank you for mentioning The Magpie Murders. It is, indeed, a great example of a fictional sleuth within a fictional world. That’s not easy to pull off, and I respect people who do it well.

  5. I’m always delighted when we have a fictional writers creating fictional characters – it is the word version of a picture inside a picture – I had a book with a cover with a girl reading a book which had a picture of the same girl reading the same book as a child. I’m glad you mentioned the Kate Atkinson writer Martin Canning

    • I like those picture-within-a-picture designs, too, Cleo. And it can really add to a plot when it’s done well. As to Martin Canning, I think Atkinson did a great job with his character. And, as the story goes on, it’s interesting to see how he evolves.

  6. When stories within stories work well they can be so effective. I loved the world Marissha Pessl created in Night Film for her fictional director Cordova – such detail made him seem real!

    • That’s an interesting point about stories-within-stories, Cathy746Books. They can add depth to a character, among other things, because they allow the reader to see more of that character’s personality, work, and so on. Thanks for mentioning the Pessl, too. It’s a good reminder that filmmakers are also creators…

  7. Ah, I see I’ve been beaten to it with Magpie Murders! Horowitz’s most recent novel, The Word is Murder, plays even more with this kind of thing, by having himself fictionalised within the novel, writing the novel about a fictional detective who’s real within the book. Confused? Yes, me too! 😉

    • It’s a bit like looking at a number images of yourself reflected in the glass, isn’t it, FictionFan? When you stand just so, you can see what look like endless reflections. And in a story, it can be confusing if it’s not done well. And, yet, it can work, too, and the Horowitz examples show how it can be pulled off.

  8. Fascinating post, Margot. A story within a story does make it intriguing.

  9. What a fascinating post, Margot. Fictional characters creating fiction characters would certainly add an intriguing layer.

    • Thanks, Sue. I’m glad you thought the post was interesting. I do think that a plot point where a fictional character creates a fictional character can add solid layers to a story if it’s done well.

  10. Col

    Misery – great book, great film!

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