Sunday, April 22, 2012

Showing Character.

In the book, ‘Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery,’ the James Martin character is interesting partly because of who he was, but to the writer, he was interesting because of the challenge of showing rather than telling.

Showing rather than telling: character.

I never really came out and said James Martin is young, adventurous, and brave enough but a bit of a dreamer. I never said James Martin was an orphan, raised as a Roman Catholic in a Protestant society. I never said that he had some sense of social inferiorities, and that he aspired to great things, or how that led him to join the RAF and subsequently trying to get on the Schneider Cup seaplane racing team. I have never really given a ‘biography’ of any character. What happens is the characters take certain actions, and while someone of a different background altogether might take similar actions for similar reasons, their actions are a result of who they are.

How and why they do certain things is a function of their personality, their upbringing and their circumstances. They have to contend with conditions as they exist. Since James was Catholic, he had to lie about his religion in order to advance in the RAF structure as it existed circa 1927. This led to the possibility of being exposed, both as a Catholic, and as a liar. This raised certain conflicts in James, who is a good, honest young man. He tried to resolve the conflict in an immature way—the best way he could based on who he was.

In the book, others make observations about James Martin, yet none of them really defines him. It is his actions that define him. In terms of showing rather than telling, in terms of character study, I think I did a good job.

The role of description.

The scenes advance cinematically. They must be seen, in the sense that there really is no narrator. We get a glimpse into people’s heads, and out of their eyes as we go along. There is no ‘plot narrator’ explaining, “Okay reader, this is the murder scene…” The fact there is a dead guy on the dining room table shows that something extraordinary has happened.

When a character walks on the moors, or enters a room, the description is enough that the reader can see it, feel it or smell it, without going off on an eight-page tangent about how a flower looks or what grass looks like on a hillside. Some sense of the remoteness of the place helps in achieving the feel of the story as it unfolds. It’s a dark story that happens in a beautiful place.

A balance of action and exposition, movements and dialogue.

In ‘The Handbag’s Tale,’ a short story which led to this book, the Maintenon character says, ‘I like to get the right guy.’ His actions define him, and in ‘Redemption,’ he is bothered by the James Martin character. His actions seem wrong, somehow. He just doesn’t believe James is capable of murder, and so that leads him, almost forces him, to take certain actions.

My dad read this book, and he said there was a lot of dialogue. A review of the original ‘The Handbag’s Tale,’ said there was ‘just a lot of people talking.’ That’s one reason why I wrote the novel, to address the limitations of the short story.

But I also think police work is like that. It’s a lot of interviews, a lot of asking questions and listening carefully to the responses. Only so much time is spent going around with a magnifying glass looking for clues. It really is a psychological game, because in order to gather evidence, and we are dealing with mysterious circumstances here, we have to know where to look. Solving a mystery is really about the analysis of facts, putting two and two together and then wondering how it ever came to add up to five…or three, or even seven. Knowing that the answers can’t possibly be true forces us to look further.

If I need further excuses, I can simply point to Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger arguing in court, or Miss Marple patiently explaining how somebody resembled the butcher’s boy and we all know about him…it’s all about offering alternative explanations for the same actions. Here is a good excuse too.

Plot involves movement.

Plot involves the movement of characters across some kind of landscape or environment.

In terms of the plot action, the thing unfolds well enough, with plenty of description of scenes, the terrain, the houses and the rooms. Rather than physically describing someone from head to toe, I tend to use two or three lines. ‘James Martin is a twenty-four year-old Royal Air Force officer, recently commissioned. He had blonde hair and blue eyes,’ and that pretty much leaves the rest to the imagination.

When a character steps into a story, there is implied a fully-fleshed out back-story. This is best left out of the book. Small bits can be squeezed in along the way. Taking a day and a half to explain every event since birth is a good way to lose a lot of readers.


When writing a book, we have to figure out who might actually read it. This book was written with relatively well read and intelligent adults in mind. It’s not really meant for children or young adults, although I’m sure some will read it. The very fact that Inspector Gilles Maintenon is about fifty-four years old and a serious character sort of limits it in the youth market. People who like mysteries will hopefully enjoy the story. Since it’s not formulaic genre fare, others whose taste runs to the more literary fiction might enjoy it as well.


In terms of themes, I never really said, nor did a ‘theme narrator’ ever explain that the book has themes of grief, loss, remorse, regret, revenge, hate, bigotry, prejudice, and many more positive themes, all gathered together and woven into an entertaining tapestry of love, murder, and the quest for justice.

The characters are perfectly capable of saying all that for themselves. The story is both unique and yet plausible for its time and place. As for the cave scene, and the swordfight scene, stuff like that is really just the icing on the cake. On days like that, I really love my job.


  1. Great post Louis, I agree with everything you said. Too many writers get bogged down in narative discription. It bores me to the extent that I stop reading the book altogether.

    Carol x

    1. Thank you Carol. Ever since my first novel went to 230,000 words, I've been trimming and paring it down to the extent my most recent books were from 65,000 to 80,000 words.


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