“Hugger-mugger takes a lot of explaining, a lot of diagramming. An additional trouble with it, which keeps the suspense thriller, however skillful and polished, a subgenre, is that the novelist, manipulating his human counters on the board, must keep them somewhat blank, with selective disclosure of their inner lives, lest the killer or mole or whatever be prematurely unmasked.”
— John Updike, “Hugger-Mugger”, The New Yorker, 9.18.06, reviewing le Carré’s novel The Mission Song.
The more you know about a character, the less mystery remains. The less you know about a character, the less believably human he seems. In technical terms, literature requires “round” characters, mystery requires “flat” ones. The trick is to square that circle somehow.
See, that’s why I read your blog, to get perspectives on writing I don’t get elsewhere. And this is an interesting one.
So I’m writing flat characters?
Here’s how I’m going to interpret/twist that around: I write characters onto whom the reader can project their views, beliefs, and images. My characters are not less rounded, they are just not rounded out by me. The fact that a reader might incorrectly assume a bad guy to be innocent, or vice-versa, does not detract from that.
In fact, given that none of us is totally good or bad, a little mistaken projection is a good thing.
William Landay says
Hi DAC. Thanks for the kind words.
I’m not convinced by your projection theory, which would seem to excuse all flat characters as ideal blank screens for whatever the reader chooses to project onto them. That’s an exception that swallows the rule. (Nice try, though.)
I might state it a little differently: the goal of all good writing is to create credible “round” characters, but mystery writers are uniquely hobbled in this regard. We cannot simply describe a key character’s interior life as other authors do. That would give the game away. Obviously you can’t describe the private thoughts of a murder suspect without divulging that he is or is not the murderer. It is an inherent limitation of the form: some of our characters must remain opaque — “blank,” in Updike’s word — at least partly.
That is why mystery/suspense abounds in flat characters. What choice is there?
It is also why the detective story is such a durable form for mystery/suspense: the detective naturally is excluded from the private thoughts of the various suspects.
The trick, I think, is to find a way out of this box. How to make a character mysterious yet credibly human? And how to escape the straitjacket of the detective story, which we’ve been retelling for two thousand years, since “Oedipus Rex”?
D.A. Confidential says
Perhaps you are right. Perhaps, too, this is why series mysteries are so popular and important. These give the reader the most rounded character imaginable, a familiar detective/hero. Is there a less flat character than Holmes, or even Watson? Maybe it’s just that the flatness of the potential bad guys is made up for by the delicious fullness of the man or woman who catches them.