Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Are Fictional Characters getting too Weird?

Following the first couple of episodes of Chasing Shadows (you know, the new ITV series with Reese Shearsmith and Alex Kingston?), I’ve been thinking about ‘character.’ It’s an area I want to develop in my writing, but I’m a little confused. DS Sean Stone, the lead detective in Chasing Shadows, has been accused of being far too extreme.
We presume his complete lack of social skills, abrupt over-directness and inability to smile is medical (due to some form of Autism, but this is never stated, to avoid misrepresentation). But DS Stone is SO antisocial, it leads me to question how he ever got into the police force in the first place, where trust, sharing of information and reliance on your colleagues is fundamental?

Mark Lawson (The Guardian) points out that the autism spectrum has become a ‘fashionable fictional accessory’. We saw it (first?) in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and the recent Nordic Noir TV crime series The Bridge had Sofia Helin playing a rude but intuitive, Saga NorĂ©n. This trend for detectives who lack emotional empathy has now spread to the new Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Conan Doyle’s investigator more OCD and with far more ‘psychiatrically precise isolationism’ than he had in the original stories.

I’m not sure if I’ll continue with Chasing Shadows – I like both lead actors, but I’m torn about the hybrid nature of the drama, which seems to combine serious crime with slightly slapstick overtones…

It’s not just the Autistic spectrum, however, that is generating extreme characters, these days. Authors in general, seem to be creating characters who are rather OTT. Do protagonists need to have OCD and psychiatric disorders in order for us to be interested in their story? Personally, I’m more interested in the puzzle and mystery of a crime novel (Sophie Hannah is with me on this one!) than whether the protagonist can remember Pi to sixteen decimal places.

I remember reading Marianne MacDonald’s Death’s Autograph several years ago and thoroughly enjoying it, because I could identify with the lead female, because she was…well...normal. She wasn’t a sociopath and a world-class computer hacker, with pierced eyebrows, a huge tattoo and a phenomenal memory. Instead, she owns an antiquarian bookshop and has a doddery, but independent father as her side-kick. Miss Marple was a busy-body, a smart old dear getting the better of slow-witted detectives, but she didn’t also run a brothel or have a heroin problem. Did she need to, in order to make the stories exciting? Or Colin Dexter’s Lewis? He’s a rather dour, working-class family man in contrast to his more educated colleague (Morse, then DS Hathaway), but he doesn’t have any extraordinary traits, like the ability to break a person's neck with one hand, the penchant for discarding clothes after wearing them for two days or abnormally fast reflexes (sorry, Jack Reacher).

Fictional characters need to be distinctive and believable with individual personality traits – but do we need to be making them so out of this world? Isn't it the 'story' that really matters? Some might say that characters MAKE the story, but if a mystery is absorbing enough, I don't really mind whether Poirot, Scott & Bailey or Winnie-the-Pooh solves it. I know writers have to be distinctive to get noticed by a publisher, but I think this desire to make characters as off the wall as possible is going a bit far…

What do you think?
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.

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