Wednesday, 25 May 2011

CrimeFest Panel Report 2 - Bringing Up Baby

Following earlier posts, here's the second panel report.

This one was Bringing Up Baby - Creating Believable Sleuths. Panellists were Paul Johnston, L C Tyler, Christopher Wakling and Anne Zouroudi, moderated by Zoë Sharp. I always like to see the panels Zoë moderates - they are good fun and she asks excellent questions.

Zoë asked whether heroes need to be heroic. Len Tyler said that the realism of the character is in the flaws but that sometimes the trend is to make characters a little too flawed. Anne Zouroudi says that she has problems because her protagonist is not a typical detective, so it's difficult to give him flaws. She commented that it was Sherlock Holmes' flaws which make him interesting and that flaws are essential in any believable character. She agreed, though, that some flaws are becoming a bit of a cliche these days. Despite their flaws, the best protagonists have a good side which redeems them. Christopher Wakling said that he likes relatively mundane flaws and made everyone laugh when he said that his character's flaw is that he needs a haircut (I really want to read the book after that!) The character is frustrated and bored and it is those things which power the book. Paul Johnston said that the flaws needn't be in the detective but in the context he or she finds themselves in. For example, with Alex Mavros, what drives him as a missing persons specialist is the fact that he lost his brother.

Zoë asked Anne how much setting moulds the character. She said that Hermes is a figure of justice and he grew out of her interest in Greek mythology and Jungian psychology, and he grew out of the landscape. He was based on a Greek bank manager.

Zoë then asked Christopher Wakling what the differences were when setting a character in a historical time period. He said that he did loads of research on the slave trade in Bristol, wrote a really long book, and then cut all the research out. He looked for the universal things.

Len was asked how he arrived at his narrative style of having two first person narrators. He said that he did it because he enjoyed reading it in other people's books and it gives him the opportunity to use different typefaces. It also gives two completely different viewpoints.

Zoë asked the panel how they go about creating a character. Chris said that it was an organic process and he adds to the character as he goes through the book. He commented that he teaches creative writing and he has a 150 question questionnaire which he gives to students asking about their character. He'd never done that himself and, when he was bored one day, he started to do it for his own protagonist and realised that he didn't know half the answers. Anne felt that to do that would kill a story dead. She starts out with a glimpse of a character. She said that, when creating a character, you have a role for them and that, for example, if you're creating a baddie, you wouldn't have a woman who bakes cup-cakes (I actually think that would be a good idea). She then writes the details in afterwards.

Paul was of the opinion that you have to leave gaps for the reader, and he doesn't tend to use a lot of physical description. In the first book of his Matt Wells series, the character is completely driven by revenge after being drpped by his agent an publisher (written after Paul was dropped by his agent and publisher...). Len said that you need to keep track of the characters somehow, especially when writing a series.

Zoë asked Len what he did to create conflict. He said that he once read a book about writing which said 'no conflict = no story'. He said that he has conflict between Ethelred and Elsie and that Ethelred also has a conflict with modernity.

The next question for the panel was whether they had ever painted themselves into a corner. Paul said that there will always be someone who sends you an e-mail to tell you where you have gone wrong. The important thing for his is to show the effect of the story on the character. Anne said that it is important not to get bored with the things that you have made your touchstones, and that those details can be very comforting to readers. Chris Wakling said that he writes standalones and so creates new characters each time. He once wrote a dog into a book with a very small part, but when he decided to change its name, the dog suddenly became very important and he had to change things.

Zoë then asked how the panellists chose their character names. Chris said that he had a character called Harry Brinkman but nobody got the significance (I have to confess that I am one of those nobodies :o) ). Len said that in his latest book, all his characters are named after fictional characters in crime fiction, and no-one has noticed. However, in the middle of those is the random name of someone who won a character named after them in an auction. Zoë said that she had this problem too - one of her books has a character called Frances Neagley, who won this at an auction. However, Frances Neagley also bid to be a character in a Lee Child novel and Zoë said that she'd been accused of stealing the name!

Paul Johnston said that, when he was thinking of a name for his Quintillian Dalrymple character, he wanted a protagonist with the initials QED. The best he could come up with for the E, when sitting in a pub with a friend, was Eric. So Quint doesn't have a middle name after all! Mavros is Greek for 'black' and is a play on noir, and for Matt Wells he wanted a bland, uncontroversial name. However, soon after the book came out he received an e-mail from a Guardian journalist called Matt Wells.

Zoë asked whether people ever spotted something about themselves (either rightly or wrongly) in the panellists' books. Anne Zouroudi said that she sometimes borrows physical descriptions from people, but that she doesn't know anyone interesting enough to be a full character. Paul said that he once killed his ex-wife in a novel and she didn't notice. He has also used other real people - heavily (or not so heavily) disguised. Len said that he once wrote a hideous caricature of a female novelist he didn't like. However, as he was writing the book, he got to like the real life person better and, as a result, the character in the book became nicer too. Zoë said that she has run out of people she doesn't like and now takes requests (note to self, never piss Zoë off).

The panellists were then asked how much of themselves is in their characters. Anne said that her son thinks she is Hermes to a T, and sometimes it's subconscious. Paul said that with Matt Wells he was definitely sending himself up, as well as his ex-publisher and ex-agent.

Zoë asked what annoyed the panellists in characters they read. Paul said that he can't stand snobbery and class - so one of his least favourite characters is Lord Peter Wimsey. Chris Wakling said that he dislikes American Psycho - not because he's a nasty character, but because he can read someone's business card across a room. Len recently read a book with a five year old narrator who acts like an adult. Anne's pet peeve was a general one - policemen who are grateful to members of the public who solve crimes and are quite happy to give them all sorts of information. She said that in real life, policemen try to keep the general public away from crime scenes. Zoë said that she dislikes characters who get things wrong. One of Dan Brown's characters escapes in a Range Rover and to Zoë it was clear that Dan Brown had never been near a Range Rover, let alone driven one.

There, I think that's it. A couple more to go over the next few days.


  1. Trying again after Blogger rejected my Wordpress and Blogger personae and ate my comment!

    thanks for the update(s). I am sure people did notice, in both cases. Readers tend to be bright people. Perhaps what they mean is that the reviewers did not notice - and reviewers are a whole other species ;-)

  2. This was my favourite panel of CrimeFest. Thanks for writing it up so well!

  3. Maxine - I am sure they did!

    Sarah - thank YOU :o) It was a great panel, wasn't it?