Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. - Gabriel Marcel

Writers are like magicians in their ability to pull characters out of their hats. The well-written protagonists become almost real people that can stay with the writer and the reader well after the book is finished. They run the gamut from Beowulf to Hamlet; from Holden Caulfield to the Vampire Lestat; from the almost iconic Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade to John Rebus. The list is endless and thinking of one favorite will lead you to another.

Calling a protagonist a hero is far too simplified and sometimes far from the actual case. In many instances, the lead is flawed and often haunted. Sometimes literally. This seems especially true of crime fiction. The internal motives that would drive someone to crime or the pursuit of criminals run as deep and as wide as the Mississippi during flood season. Readers may fall in and get pulled under by the current to later find themselves gasping for breath on the shore, wondering what the hell just happened.

Crime fiction protagonists are born of the good, the bad and the ugly in an author. They bear scars and wear armor fashioned from the author’s own strengths and fears. As readers, these human qualities draw us in and involve us in the story. Something about them resonates in us. We feel empathy; we begin to care about them. We want them to be ok. We are given no reassurances.

Ask a group of readers who their favorite protagonists are and why and the answers will be as varied as the people you’ve asked. Ask David Peace, Victor Gischler, Laura Lippman, John Connolly, Martyn Waites, Manuel Ramos, and Dennis Lehane the same questions and you will find the same intensity and some startling insights.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. The blood and the guts. What makes a great protagonist remarkable? Why is one character so compelling and another utterly forgettable?

Nineteen Eighty Three completed David Peace’s Yorkshire Ripper Quartet. Narratives wrought with sleaze and the distortion of justice are woven through this evocative noir epic. His characters are deeply troubled and psychologically compelling.

“For me, the main element in any protagonist is whether or not they are believable. In order for them to be believable, they have to be "grey". Every day I do good things and I do bad things - the truth here, a white lie there, a kind thought and an unkind one. I don't see any black and white in my life and protagonists written in monochrome are unbelievable and of no interest to me.”

Victor Gischler has written a series of neo noir short stories and his book, Gun Monkeys, features a darkly humorous and morally upstanding mob hit man that loves his mommy. “When reading, I don't like the feeling that the protagonist was created only to find clues and solve a mystery. I want to feel the character is a living breathing person who has had an involved, complex life well-established before the novel began. I suppose this is important for many of the major characters, not just the protagonist. The protagonist needs a specific balance of characteristics. I need to feel confident in him/her, like he/she can handle whatever happens. Yet the protagonist must be vulnerable enough for us to have suspense. I need to believe there's a good chance things WON'T work out for our hero, so I can be a little afraid.”

Edgar, Shamus, Anthony and Agatha award winner Laura Lippman’s novels feature Baltimore PI, Tess Monaghan. Tess has seen evil up close and personal and has every intention of kicking its ass.

“She should be able to bench at least 150 pounds. Okay, now that I've amused myself (if no one else), let me think about that much more seriously. It's a personal question, not unlike -- What's the best double-scoop combination at Baskin-Robbins. Because while I would argue vehemently for chocolate chip-orange sherbet, I know there are a variety of good answers.

I think the best protagonists are flawed because human beings are flawed. They have a strong sense of right and wrong. Granted, it may be about as mainstream as chocolate chip-and-orange sherbet, but it's clear to them. They do not necessarily see themselves as forces for good in the world, but they will take up a cause if no one else steps forward.

Oh, and they're interesting and they should be very good company, someone you would want to spend time with even in their downtime.”

John Connolly has an undeniable talent for writing about reluctant, troubled heroes. His protagonists are common men in the midst of uncommon events that step forward to help when most would back away. Their ultimate desire for justice and their internal struggles set Connolly’s leads apart from the macho superhero commonly found in crime fiction. When asked about the elements of a strong protagonist, he answers: “I really wish I knew. I suppose, on one level, the reader needs to be able to admire them - not unconditionally, but he or she should be understandable to the reader and yet capable of acting in ways that are a little beyond the capacities of the average reader. Actually, my abiding memory of someone making a profound mistake in the creation of a lead character came during a radio workshop I was involved in. The woman whose work was being critiqued had written what was, in many ways, a very strong piece of modern crime fiction. The only problem was that, three pages in, her hero wet himself with terror. With that in mind, here is my Number One Rule For Creating A Protagonist: Your protagonist should never, ever, smell of wee...

Although we may not admit it, we like our lead character to be just that little bit smarter, that little bit faster, that little bit funnier, or maybe that little bit harder than we are. For example, a mystery novel in which the reader was always one step ahead of the detective would be very disappointing.

There is, I think, a strong element of wish-fulfillment in mystery fiction, both on the part of the readers and the writers. Most writers aren't very tough (and I am very skeptical of those writers who tell stories in bars in which they claim to be tough.)

When I began writing the Parker novels, the first thing I wrote was the prologue. I wanted Parker to be a man defined by grief and loss. He grows in stature as the books progress, I hope, but in the beginning he's a bit of a lost soul; very human, but very lost. He's not an archetypal tough guy: that really doesn't interest me at all. In the end, he has human weaknesses.”

Manuel Ramos has created a surprisingly buoyant lead in Denver-based Latino lawyer Luis Montez. Montez lives in a world of violence and double standards. The novels reveal the enmity facing Latinos in a white world. Ramos’s first-person narrative has a palpable emotional quality. “When I think of the characters who have stuck in my head over the years the common characteristic that comes to mind is that I have been able to relate at a very personal level with that character. The character has good and bad characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, not always smart, may even be ill-mannered, but I always know that he or she really wants to do the right thing, and that creates some empathy. So, I care about what happens to the character, even if I don't actually "like" that person. A writer who can do that is someone I will read again, and again.”

P.I. Stephen Larkin takes more punishment in Martyn Waites books than a rugby team takes in the World Cup. Larkin is an imminently likeable protagonist. He does what is right despite all of the wrong that is done to him and he has a mordant drollness that antagonizes antagonists. There is a sense that Larkin has no one and no place that he belongs to and yet his will to survive is astonishing. “When I came to create my own series protagonist, Stephen Larkin, I knew what I wanted. He had to be an outsider, able to go where he wanted, unbound by the restraints of a job or the law, operating to his own moral code. The job of a policeman, with its rules, regulations and paperwork was out. I made him a journalist, a burnt out investigative one. I wanted him to have had a troubled past so I gave him a dead wife and child that he could still feel guiltily responsible for. He has his own personal demons to wrestle with. He drinks too much.

He has a strong sense of right and wrong, of justice over law. I didn't want him to just be the investigator (I hate the idea of investigative or detective fiction for its own sake). I wanted there to be a reason for him to get involved with each story, for it to mean something for him personally. He has to be there for a reason, just as every other character in the book is. He had to have development, his own over-riding arc. He had to suffer each time and hopefully learn from it. This may sound like the archetypal, even clichéd, noir protagonist, but I don't care. I wanted him troubled; I wanted him looking for something. I wanted his heart to beat and the reader's along with it. In short, I wanted him human. I didn't want a superman who knew all the answers or who wouldn't be touched by the event around him. To me, crime fiction isn't about plot or whodunit or which clues you spot or anything like that. I read crime fiction for the same reason I read other fiction - I want good storytelling, atmosphere, an exciting use of words and language, a strong voice. But above all else, good characters. You get them, give them something interesting to do, and the rest follows.”

Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro have inspired a rabid following for Dennis Lehane. The two characters grew up together and operate just outside of the law and love in an ever evolving, dynamic relationship. Mystic River has taken the noir protagonist and redefined it. The depth of pain conveyed by the three leads and the despair the reader experiences with them is breathtaking. Shutter Island’s Teddy Daniels will break your heart. “Flaws are important. Nothing bores me faster than reading a book in which the main character is forthright, honest, noble and the like. Characters should resemble people and people are a compendium of strengths and weaknesses. When those strengths and weaknesses coincide, you get conflict and conflict is the core of fiction.”

It can take weeks (for Larry Block), months or even years to write a book. For that time, the writers have that lead living with them on many different levels. Does the author experience events with their protagonist or is it more of an emotional catharsis? David Peace suffers for his art. What is it like to have a protagonist living in your head for months or years? “To be honest, in my case, it is depressing and I do try to regulate very strictly the hours of my day so I can keep these people locked inside the study and not bring them to the dinner table and the kids. It doesn't always work though.”

“For me, it's not a big deal.” Gischler says. “I've heard writers say they "assume" the personality of the character. I guess I don't really do that. I don't feel like I've ever been "taken over" by one of my protagonists. Maybe I should say that I have been. Maybe that would sell more books.”

Lippman agrees. “I like it. It's a socially acceptable way for an adult to have an imaginary friend.”

What is it like for Ramos? “Distracting. When Luis starts telling me about another one of his cases, it has to be written down, right then! So, there goes the day job, the planned vacation, mowing what's left of my lawn, that movie I had wanted to see.”

“Ask my wife. She has to put up with it more than me,” laughs Waites. He continues, “and now for the less glib reply. To me, it's not just the one protagonist. It's all the characters. They're all there, in my head, the good ones, the mad ones, the mad ones and the sad ones and the plain confused ones. I carry the lot round with me and they all talk to me. Sometimes they try and conceal what they mean, sometimes they come out and tell me. I sometimes think of how the other characters are doing. Moir, who bowed out at the end of Candleland, I wonder how him and his daughter are getting on living in Clapham. And whether he's happy or not. I hope so. Stephen Larkin has been different, though. He's the one I've gone back to more and more. I've stopped writing about him now and created a completely new set of characters for the novel I'm working on at the moment, The White Room. I'm not saying I'll never bring him back, I just think I have more interesting stories to tell without him.”

For Connolly, it is a very involved process. “It can get a little wearing at times. I find that while I spend a certain number of hours at my desk writing, I spend far more thinking about writing, so that means that the characters are with me even when I'm at a movie, out to dinner, or simply taking a walk. The upside is that I figure out a lot of things while I'm doing that, but the downside is that the book never really goes away. I love what I do, and I think any writer who earns a living from writing should never be off his or her bended knees giving thanks for it, but writing can be draining at times. "Dark Hollow", my second book, was very difficult to write. I remember finishing it and being very tired, very down, and just generally worn out by it, maybe because it's a dark, intense book. But that's probably as it should be: if I don't have an emotional investment in it, how can I expect it to affect the reader?”

Lehane sums it ups beautifully. “One of my mentors, the novelist John Dufresne, has a great moment in his book ‘Love Warps the Mind a Little’, in which the main character asks: "How do you explain to the person you're speaking to at the cocktail party that your eyes are wandering not because you're bored, but because two of your characters have just entered the room and approached the curtains and you're curious to see what they'll do next." It's a lot like that. When I was living with Teddy in ‘Shutter Island’, I began to dream like him. When I spent too long in Dave Boyle's head in ‘Mystic River’, I had to lock up my office and stay away for a week just to dry clean my brain. When I'm with Patrick for extended periods, I find myself thinking in a much more "quippy" fashion, always looking for the funniest lines in any given situation.”

There has been great debate about when to retire a character. Writers can outgrow a character before readers do and vice versa. When is it time to put a protagonist to pasture?

“Probably when the story leads to that pasture,” answers Ramos. “I think I will know when Luis has run his course simply because there isn't anything new to say about him. There can always be different plots, of course, but if there is nothing new going on with the character, then there's not much point.”

“As long as the author can stay interested, it will work.” Gischler reflects. “If the author starts to get bored, then the readers will too.”

Waites answer parallels that of Gischler. “As soon as you get bored writing about them. Personally, I don't care about sales, I don't care about winning formulas. If you're fed up with a character, get rid of them. Larkin is now no more. He pops up in Born Under Punches but only as one character in an ensemble. And he works as a journalist. Nothing else. It got to the stage with him that when I sat down to right a Larkin-centric novel, it was like putting on a jacket that I'd been wearing for years. I might still like the jacket but it was starting to look old and threadbare. It had been repaired a few times but was showing its age. Time to put it back in the wardrobe and buy a new one. Leave it till it became fashionable again.

Also, I think there is a finite limit to the amount of things that can happen to one person without stretching things to ridiculous limits. I would hate to be one of these writers who just go on, churning out the same stuff with ever diminishing returns just for the sake of a few quid. You may as well do factory work or go work in a call centre for all the stimulation that allows. Readers are, by and large, intelligent. If you went to a restaurant that had a good reputation and they served you up sub-standard rubbish, you'd complain that they were just coating on the strength of their name and not eat there again. It's the same with series books. Keep things fresh and interesting for yourself and you'll do the same for the readers.”

“That's a hard one to answer,” says Connolly when asked about character retirement, but that doesn’t keep him from answering. “Ideally, when the writer gets sick of writing about a central character it's probably a good time to give up, because that's going to be communicated to the reader. At the very least, you're going to produce substandard work that shortchanges those who've liked your earlier work.

The flipside of the question is, how do you allow a character to develop over a lifetime of writing so that he or she remains fresh to both the writer and the reader? I'm not sure that I have the answer yet, but I suspect that it may be related to the humanity of the character. Many protagonists tend to exist in kind of unreal universes, where they never really age, don't find themselves encumbered by children, don't have to answer to anyone but themselves. That's why I've tried to do things a little differently with Parker, by at least exploring how he might go about seeking love, stability, a family. It may not work in this particular genre - after all, a man or woman with a family is probably not going to do anything to endanger them - but it's worth examining.”

Lippman’s opinion isn’t set in stone. “I used to think it was when the writer was tired. But I'm beginning to see that the character might tire before the writer does. Let's just say that I hope, to paraphrase Potter Stewart on the subject of pornography, that I'll know it when I see it.”

Peace has a different opinion. “I don't actually care for the 'serial protagonist' much - though I do use recurring characters. I prefer a change of narrative perspective. However, I very much admire (and have been influenced by) the writings of James Lee Burke and Ian Rankin and both have produced exceptional work with their Robicheux and Rebus series. That said, I have also often wondered what novels they might have written had they not had the constraints of their lead characters - but then we might never have had ‘The Confederate Dead’ or ‘Black & Blue’. Tough call.”

Lehane is succinct . “When there's no space left for them to grow or change.”

Leads in mystery novels are beaten, shot, stabbed, drugged, run over, deprived of sleep and tortured. Sometimes all in one day. Yet, somehow, they persevere. If placed in a situation similar to those they’ve placed their protagonists in, how would these authors fare?

Gischler doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I would have my ass handed to me on a tray in about four seconds flat.”

Connolly is in agreement. “Like 99.9999 per cent of mystery writers, I'd probably end up dead.”

Lehane says simply, “Badly.”

“Not very well, I'm afraid.” Ramos remarks, “My series protagonist, Luis Montez, is a Chicano lawyer in Denver, living on the edge. I have to admit that we have some characteristics in common, but I certainly am not Luis. I've never stumbled on a dead body in my office or had to confront a hit man with a giant handgun and a serious case of "shoot now and ask later." I lead a fairly quiet life, try to avoid hassles. Luis doesn't know what a quiet life is, and his friends and clients are nothing but hassles.”

Lippman expounds. “Poorly. I have a recurrent nightmare in which I find myself in a life-or-death moment, and I can't produce any sound. (Go ahead, amateur Freudians, take your shots.) I'm the person who can never remember what to do when I hit a patch of ice -- steer which direction -- and I consequently dinged someone else's car a few winters ago. Over a decade ago, I was riding my bike and the chain slipped, catapulting me forward over my handlebars. I had just enough time to reject bringing my arm up, as I didn't want to break it. Didn't have enough time to craft a counter-strategy, so I ended up landing on my upper lip, knocking out three teeth and sustaining a scar I have to this day. That said, I have a pretty strong survival instinct and I've been known to sit in movie theaters and wonder what I'll do if someone comes in and starts firing randomly. I've been thinking such thoughts since the Luby's shooting in Killeen, Texas.”

Peace also has past experience with which to answer. “In the Quartet, the characters live in the Yorkshire of the 70s and early 80s - which is the time and place I grew up in as a child. Obviously, I found it as dark and depressing as they do. The rage and impotence that some of them feel in the face of the times and the place in which they live, are things I felt and feel. I know something of the emotional pain, through the sudden deaths of friends and relatives. I also know something of the physical pain, through being beaten up on numerous occasions (and twice by the West Yorkshire Police). So in a word, badly.”

Martyn Waites is a little more hopeful. “The short answer is badly, probably. I tend to think of Stephen Larkin as the person I would be if I were sharp enough. You know when you think of the killer one liner ten minutes after the event? Larkin is the one who thinks of it at the time. He's also more reckless than me; I'd even go so far as to say he's got something of a deathwish at times. I wouldn't be so reckless as I don't have a deathwish (just sort of a deathfear), which would make me more cautious. Which would probably make me less effective. However, having said that, I would like to think that my instinct for self-preservation was as strong. I would like to think I could get out things the same way. I would hate to be put to the test, though.”

Mysteries are character driven and a sense of family is extended to the best leads. Now, the question I’ve been longing to ask… who are your favorite protagonists?

David Peace: “Robicheux (James Lee Burke), Rebus (Ian Rankin), Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), Marlowe (Raymond Chandler), Maigret (Georges Simenon), and Easy Rawlins (Walter Mosley) as well as the voice/narrator of Derek Raymond's Factory Series. I also miss my own Jack Whitehead, now he's no longer with me.”

Victor Gischler: “My first favorite is Travis McGee, the entertaining boat bum created by John D. MacDonald. The plots of the books all kind of run together in my memory, but the character of Travis remains very vivid. Dan Simmons' character Joe Kurtz is simply a hard-boiled bad-ass and very fun to read. Also, one must respect what Marlowe/Spade did for the genre -- oldies but goodies.”

Laura Lippman: “I couldn't name them all and I'll probably leave out someone key. I adored Eva Wylie (Liza Cody). I always looked forward to catching up with the two Ms. Jones, Sam and Casey (Katy Munger). And Rei Shimura (Sujata Massey), and Robin Hudson (Sparkle Hayter). If I had to define a common element, it is the sense that these characters are always changing, capable of surprising.

Then again, I still like Spenser, who never changes, so go figure.”

John Connolly: “I liked Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro, because of the way he tackled their emotional involvement with each other, particularly in the first two books. I like Dave Robicheaux because Burke has tried to make the family situation work; even though I think even he has run into problems with Bootsie, Dave's wife. I thought Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar books were becoming really interesting, and considerably darker, when he stopped writing them, so I'm a bit sorry about that. Finally, my all time favorite has to be Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. He was a bit of an influence on Parker.”

Martyn Waites: “I've never been a fan (and this is well documented) of the Agatha Christie type of cozy. In fact I'd go so far as to say I hated it. And still do. Marple, Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, all that lot never interested me. They never said anything about my life, my surroundings, the world I lived in. They were fatuously self assured, smug, full of themselves and displaying little in the way of self-doubt or complexity. Maybe it's just me, but I want something more than from my crime fiction than a smug cypher who solves clues. The first crime fiction lead character I came to who spoke directly to me and my life was Chandler's Marlowe. Bit of a clichéd answer, I know, but there you go. I came to Chandler through my love of the pulps. I had been reading Doc Savage and The Shadow, those brilliant, skewed, larger than life characters, and that led me to the Black Mask boys. I was (and still am) a great admirer of Batman. To me, he's the perfect skewed noir protagonist. Writing him would be my dream job. But I digress. Back to crime fiction. Marlowe, to me, had it all. He was the perpetual outsider, the man walking the mean streets 'who is not himself mean', as his creator famously said. In the world but often not of it. Unable to fit in, with a world-weary cynicism that hid a heart of bruised romance. As someone once said, the world is a tragedy to him who feels and a comedy to him who thinks. Marlowe did both. Of course, he couldn't exist in the real world. He was as much an artificial creation as Miss Marple. Hammett, with the Continental Op, was much closer to the truth. There was a man who, in the words of Trevor Griffiths, 'worked through applause, not for it'. He was a tenacious terrier, once he got hold of something he wouldn't let go. He was rough, tough and involved. He was in the world and of it. Ross MacDonald refined the private eye to the extent that Lew Archer was a man who 'if he turned sideways would disappear'. A man with no inner life of his own but the ability to open up others. These were, to me, the three archetypes of the perfect protagonist.

But that was then and this is now. Derek Raymond's detective sergeant has been a huge influence on me. I couldn't begin to explain it. Here was a man who created such wonderful example of bruised humanity and set him loose in some of the darkest books ever written. Even I have trouble reading some of them. Burke's Dave Robicheaux is another who I'm inordinately fond of. He proves my point about good writing not being about plots but about the right characters in the right situations. I prefer character driven books and with Robicheaux he's got probably the finest and certainly best written creation in modern crime fiction. Robicheaux, still trying to cope with his own personal demons and to do the right thing, is probably the ultimate contemporary protagonist. He's definitely the man I want to be, or would hope to be, when I grow up.”

Manuel Ramos: “Easy Rawlins, Matt Scudder, Gloria Damasco (Lucha Corpi), the Inspector in Camilleri's books, Hector Belascoaran Shayne). Other series characters that I've latched onto include Henry Rios (Michael Nava), Marlowe, and the Continental Op. As soon as I send this to you I will think of a half-dozen others.”

Lehane: “In my own work or others?

In my own, I was pretty happy with Remy Broussard in ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’. I like Patrick a lot. Jimmy and Annabeth Marcus from ‘Mystic River’.

In other novels, I love Binx Bolling in Walker Percy's ‘The Moviegoer’ and Billy Parham in Cormac McCarthy's ‘The Crossing’. Nick Carroway's pretty cool in ‘The Great Gatsby’. Same with CW Shugrue in Crumley's ‘The Last Good Kiss’. I like Parker from the Westlake/Stark books and all of Elmore Leonard's protagonists.”

With the huge number of new mysteries being published, people will go back to the characters they know. That makes those at the business end of writing very happy. Although a series can be difficult to launch, a beloved series lead can make an authors career. As a word of mouth genre, crime fictions well-loved characters are well-talked about and well sold. When it comes down to it, despite the tours, the interviews, the eye catching book covers, the promotional t-shirts and the blurbs from other authors, what makes the book is the writing. And what makes the writing, is the protagonist.

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Comment by Tim Maleeny on March 21, 2007 at 2:38pm
Awesome article, Jen, thanks. A fascinating cross-section of writers. And who knew Tess Monaghan could bench-press 150 lbs?
Comment by Carolyn Rogers on March 12, 2007 at 1:48am
Read this last night--thanks for posting this. Since I'm in new-protagonist-creation mode right now, it definitely gave me lots more to consider.

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