Thursday, February 12, 2009

Deepening Character Through Relationships

By Beth Terrell

At the Murder in the Magic City conference in Birmingham, several of us were chatting over dinner, and the talk turned toward character development. Not surprising, considering I was in a room full of writers. "Relationships," Liz Zevlin said. "There's no better way to show character."

I remembered her words today when a new acquaintance asked me what my book was about. I gave him my tag line, how Jared "has a son with Down Syndrome, a best friend with AIDS, an ex-wife he can't fall out of love with, and a weakness for women in jeopardy--until one frames him for murder." On the face of it, the book is about a man trying to clear himself of a murder he didn't commit, but beneath the surface is a web of relationships that reveal Jared's character and show the reader how much he has to lose. His tenderness toward his son and his ex-wife reveal a deeper dimension of the "tough-guy" P.I. who dipatches street thugs with perfect spin kicks to the head.

Spencer's relationships with Susan and with Hawk play a huge role in the Spencer books. Matthew Scudder's character is deepened by his love for his wife, his uneasy ties to his ex, and his multifaceted relationship with the sons he failed--sons who both love and resent him. "The World's Greatest Dectective" Elvis Cole reveals himself through his love for Lucy and Ben Chenier and his long friendship with Joe Pike. Jonathan Kellerman's psychologist protagonist, Alex Delaware, has complex and enduring relationships with on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend Robin and gay police detective Milo Sturgis. Even Jack Reacher, the consumate loner, has ties from the past. Who can forget Reacher's loyalty to the tight-knit Army special investigations unit he was once a member of? The one whose motto was, "You do not mess with the special investigators." Reacher's desire for (and resistance to) human connections has never been more poignant.

Mark Billingham enriched his police detective protagonist through an ongoing relationship with his father, who has progressive dementia. The hero's love for his father is mixed with guilt, sorrow, frustration, regret, and a host of other emotions that make him rich and real. I could go on and on, but the number of examples is vast, and it would take a lifetime to exhaust them.

The trick, of course, is to weave the relationships into the book so seamlessly they enhance the story rather than detract from it. In my opinion, the authors mentioned above--Crais and Kellerman, Billingham, Block, and Child--do it beautifully.

What do you think? Who uses relationships well? How do your favorite authors use relationships to reveal character?

How do you?

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