1. Vance
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    Vance Member

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    How much development is a Detective allowed to have?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Vance, Feb 5, 2011.

    I am writing a mystery as closely aligned with the Golden Age of Detective fiction as possible, which is to say I'm putting emphasis on the fairness of the game.

    Back then, authors didn't bother with character development, choosing instead to focus on the plot, which eventually led to the decline of Detective fiction. Hardboiled detective novels, such as the ones written by Raymond Chandler, have room for development, but that is not the type of novel I want to write.

    My problem can be summarized thusly:

    A novel nowadays cannot expect to have no character development. However, to ensure that the reader has a fighting chance at solving the crime, the detective must be somewhat of a walking deus ex machina. I am not sure how to develop a character while still making him the omnipotent figure the reader may rely on to help him solve the mystery.

    What do people think about this issue?
     
  2. CrimsonReaper
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    CrimsonReaper Active Member

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    Watson!

    So you want to write a Fair Play Whodunit?

    Do what most of the good ones did. The detective was NOT the viewpoint character. That was reserved for the Watson, a person typically just slightly less intelligent (or less able to put the clues together) than the reader. This leaves room for development too! Maybe the viewpoint character is too concerned with mussing over his fiance to notice that the butler has the same shoe size as the tracks outside the murdered neighbor's bedroom window. Doo doo doo........

    Sherlock Holmes is a great detective. He would make a terrible viewpoint character. Though those were almost never Fair Play anyway.
     
  3. Vance
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    Vance Member

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    Sherlock was the viewpoint character for a story or two, and most Holmesians find the stories narrated by him to be the most logical approach to them, being among the only ones that could be truly considered fair. They were, even if a bit cold, quite interesting to read.

    I like the suggestion of using a Watson, as it would allow for character development. For example, Watson never pictured Holmes as an emotional person up until the time he was almost killed and saw him worried about him. If the viewpoint character is unsure of the detective's personality, I suppose I can pass that off as growth.

    Moreover, sometimes the viewpoint character is there just to serve as the person who describes how brilliant the detective is. John Dickson Carr rarely bothered with a Watson, and he was the undisputed master of locked room mysteries. On the other extreme, Van Dine's narrator said less than 10 words throughout the twelve adventures Philo Vance took part in.

    I don't have a problem with the Watson character, but putting one in my story for the purposes of making the detective seem less perfect just doesn't sit right with me. The viewpoint character must state all the clues in order for the reader to have a chance to solve the crime, yet he must not make the realizations himself. Back then, it worked. Nowadays, I'm not so sure if it would work as well.

    Moreover, even if I did use the narrator to mistake nonexistent flaws in the detective, the narrator himself would need to have his own flaws.

    I'd rather not focus on the narrator's issues, but the crime itself.

    Van Dine's 16th rule for writing detective stories is "A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude."

    I agree with that, to a degree. The characters must feel like real people and it must be an adventure worth reading not solely for the puzzle, but the puzzle must be its central aspect. If I were to dabble on why the narrator doesn't notice something, I would be breaking that rule. If I were to simply make the narrator an idiot, it would be an insult to the reader.

    Sorry for the long post, I always get carried away when discussing detective fiction.
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Read Agatha Christie - Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence etc all had a fair degree of character development. Think she had the balance about right, and was a bit later than Sherlock etc
     
  5. Vance
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    Vance Member

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    I've read everything Christie ever wrote, but I'm not sure about the balance. Tommy & Tuppence were featured in thrillers rather than detective stories, the space for development was different.

    Miss Marple and Poirot, in my opinion, didn't change that much. But I guess that detectives don't need that much development, just enough to qualify as development.
     
  6. AxleMAshcraft
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    AxleMAshcraft Member

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    Right now I'm reading "The Secrets of Night" by Gaston Leroux, you might want to read that for some research, it might help.
    One aspect that is often done in Gaston Leroux's mystery novels is he has the detective's notebook entries, just the pure facts and the reader takes those and runs with them.
    I'm not sure how much that helped, hopefully it did.
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm confused as to whether you're asking whether the detective needs to be a well-developed, realistic character (I'd say yes) or whether the detective needs to develop and change _during_ the story (I'd say not necessarily). However, I'm not a great person to answer your question. I love murder mysteries, but to me, they're about the characters and not the crime--the murder provides stress and danger that highlights the characters.

    Who would you point to as examples of the Golden Age? I'd say that Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter, for example, was a very thoroughly developed character. Do her stories have too much "dallying" to fit your goal?

    As a side note on the Christie question, I've always felt that _At Bertram's Hotel_ and _The Mirror Crack'd_ were two novels that gave us an unusually close look "inside" Miss Marple. On the other hand, I've never felt that I really saw inside Poirot at all.
     
  8. Paris_Love
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    Paris_Love Member

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    You might consider giving your detective a handicap of some kind that enhances his crime solving skills, like the TV show "Monk". Maybe consider a puzzle genius who is also ausperger's or a veteran with debilitating PTSD that gives him super observation skills. You'll have to develop his history in order to explain why he is able to be the way he is, but you won't need to include a sub-plot for your POV protagonist.

    Would you consider a science fiction twist? Maybe your detective could be the result of a computer chip implant in his brain or genetic manipulation. You'd of course have to build in a weakness so that the reader can at least relate on some level to your POV character (even superman had his Kryptonite).

    Good luck! I'd like to hear more, you've piqued my curiosity. :)
     
  9. FindJoyInLife
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    FindJoyInLife New Member

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    Just out of curiosity is this going to be a one time thing or are you trying to create a character that will have several books centered around it? Personally if it is just a one-shot deal then I wouldn't worry about character development, I would just write the novel for what it is going to be, a good old fashioned whodunit. If you want to make this a regular character featured in a series then I suggest having some character development. You don't want to reveal everything in just the first story, but you need to create a likable character that can hold the interest of readers and bring them back. I think people are more likely to latch onto a series if they not only care about the character but they want to learn more about him/her as the series moves along as well.
     
  10. KillianRussell
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    KillianRussell Contributing Member

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    Develop the dude as eccentrically emotionally guarded to the point it is a defect of character ...His standoffish nature has resulted in making every romantic relationship a parody of love and intimacy ...make him ,strong silent and as fugged up as the rest of us....he could have parents with eastern european roots who became ultra cautious thanks to the iron curtain years where neighbors often dimed neighbors out to gain favor or a fresher loaf of bread
     
  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    A detective should be just as developed as any other protag.
     
  12. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    The story development shows the struggling of the detective, how s/he deals with information, clues, disinformation, reactions to other people. This is also development, e.g., initially feeling superior the detective gets stuck and has to overwin this.
    Maybe you can use the angle that the reader feels superior over that stupid detective because s/he doesn't see the obvious that the reader sees.... Then the plot reverses the situation: the reader suddenly sees that the detective approach solves it, while the obvious perp the reader "knew" appears to have a different twist.
    Just a silly example: suppose the perp is concluded to be left-handed. The killer writes right-handed, so cannot be the one. Later it happens that he is left-handed but writes right-handedly. This is not so illogical as you may think: my fatheer was left-handed but was forced as a boy to write with his right hand. That was common practice in the 1930s at least here. Bottom line is that the reader COULD have known in hind-sight.

    Just my two cents.
     
  13. Vance
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    Vance Member

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    Thank you very much, that was a great suggestion. I'm not exactly sure if it helped my problem, but it was one of the most pleasant reads I had in years.

    Gaston Leroux is a great writer.

    I think the closest we ever got to see of Poirot was in Curtain but I agree about us seeing a bit of Marple's philosophy.

    My examples would be Philo Vance, from Van Dine and Dr. Fell from John Dickson Carr.

    Sayers is a great writer, but her Peter development took several novels. In my case, I probably wouldn't have that luxury. I would need to get the development just right in one single novel, or else no publisher would take it.

    Ah yes, the defective detective. That's one thing to consider, thanks for the suggestion.

    I would love to write several books centered around it, but I feel like that would be impossible if I didn't make the first novel outstanding, so I'm focusing on that before deluding myself about a glorious future. So I need to fit in character development that makes the adventure seem worth it to the reader who is not interested in the mystery while still maintaining his outstanding aura of superiority.

    I really like this 'perfect but flawed' approach. Thanks for the suggestion. Eccentricity is an old Golden Age card, so having that developed instead of just taken for guaranteed could be a very good idea.

    I would disagree with that, actually. A normal protagonist needs to go through many changes and that's fine. But the detective needs to be the reader's rock, unchanging, unyielding. Sure his personality can change, but unlike a regular protagonist, he cannot get dumber or smarter without affecting the fairness of the game.

    Thank you for your suggestion, but I am afraid I'm going to have to disagree with that. My problem comes from the fact that the detective cannot ever be truly wrong, as the fairness of the game is compromised if that is the case.

    The detective's duty is to be a tour guide of sorts to the reader, introducing him to the author's world, guiding the reader towards the answer. Once the reader can't trust the detective's intelligence, he loses his footing and therefore his chance at winning the game.

    My problem comes down to the fact that he must be all knowing, yet flawed. But everyone's suggestions have helped me a lot, so, thank you everyone.
     

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