Author James Oswald takes us through what he’d like to put in his Room 101.
I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of Room 101. Specifically, the ‘things I hate’ aspect of it. Saying, ‘Don’t you just hate it when…’ or, ‘Oh, I hate it when they do…’ is so easy, so commonplace, it blurs the distinction between something we’d rather not have to deal with – a bad smell or people talking loudly in the quiet carriage – and true hatred. Words are important to me, and hate is one I try to use carefully.
So here are three things about crime fiction that I don’t actually hate, but I do think could do with some work.
Actually this applies to all fiction, but it’s a bugbear of mine all the same. If it’s not important to the plot, I don’t much care what a character looks like, nor do I need to know. And if the scene is written from that character’s point of view, then no physical description should be necessary at all. They know what they look like, so having them stop and notice it strikes false and spoils the flow of the story. The worst example of this, seen far too often, is a character studying themselves in the mirror. I die a little inside every time I read it.
I’m currently writing the tenth Inspector McLean novel, and I still have no idea what he looks like. Readers don’t seem to mind – they all have their own Tony. As writers we’re often guilty of underestimating our readers, spoon feeding them every tiny detail. I much prefer to paint a picture in snippets of image, impressions and telling details rather than a meticulously described photograph.
Strong Female Characters
No one ever says, ‘They write such strong male characters’, so why focus on making women ‘strong’? And what is strong anyway? Far too often ‘strong’ in this instance means ‘like a man’, especially when that character is also written by a man.
This isn’t to say I don’t have time for female characters with their own identities, agency and personality, and yes, they can be strong too. Physically and emotionally. Perhaps what I’m really railing against is the fact that all too often female characters in crime fiction are stereotypically weak, emotionally dependent on the ‘strong’ male characters, and usually only in the story to give the men something to do. In reaction to this, we end up creating fictional women who are just as unbelievable and two-dimensional, but in the opposite direction.
Muddled point of view
Again, more of a general writing thing than specifically crime. I can get a bit obsessive about determining who is narrating a particular scene, and if that switches mid-paragraph (or even mid-sentence, as I’ve encountered before) it throws me out of the story very quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with an omnipotent narrator, although it can make the story feel a bit distant and the characters hard to empathise with. Far better, I feel, to get inside the heads of your characters and see their world as they see it. The trick with this is in the switch, when you go from one character to another. I’ve read books where I’m privy to the thoughts of one character for a dozen paragraphs, and then suddenly know what another character is thinking in the next. It stops me in my tracks every time. ‘Who is telling this story?’ is a question I as a reader don’t want to have to be constantly asking.