Character Observers in Crime Fiction by Lisa Ciarfella

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Well it’s a pleasure and an honor to be asked back to NoWastedInk.com once again as guest blogger. Wendy’s asked me to chime in on my choice of the writing craft, so we’re talking about character observers in crime-fiction, the ones who help the sleuths solve the crimes and how they can help when writing in backstory.  It was Author Margot Kinberg’s latest blog post, “I Am the Observer Who is Observing* — at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist https://margotkinberg.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/ that got me thinking on all this…

So, how can the observer characters in crime-fiction help us write better backstory into our novels? In Kinberg’s post, she likens writers to those people in life who tend to be natural observers, hanging back and taking it all in. I tend to be like this, and I think most good authors probably are. In fact, we often like nothing better than to sit in open air cafe’s, pretending to be reading or writing on our laptops when really, we’re zeroed in on other people’s juicy conversations, stealing our next tantalizing idea for a story. Observers in our crime fiction stories do this a lot; nothing escapes these people.

As Kinberg points out, if you’ve ever read Agatha Christie, you know her main man Poirot is always looking to interview the observers in the room, and that these types are ultimately the best source for detectives and cops wanting to solve crimes. Likewise, if you’ve ever watched FX’s Criminal Minds or any of BBC’s Masterpiece mystery shows, you know that observers are often more helpful than any physical evidence found on the scene since they can point the crime solvers in the right direction when the evidence can only say so much!

“Observers often have a very interesting perspective, because they stand back and notice everything… Observers can give valuable information on what they’ve seen. And their perspectives can give the detective a sense of what a group of people is like So, it’s little wonder that we see them so often in crime fiction.” Kinberg

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Photo by Pam Evans

What intrigued me the most in Kinberg’s post was her mention of author Louise Penny’s book, Still Life. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list now. According to Kinberg, the victim, Jane Neal, seems to be the observer, albeit from after the grave. She helps the cops by letting them know she’d known things, a lot of things, that other people in town just may have wished she hadn’t! And that very fact, helped seal her doom!

Now since I’m writing up a novel where the victim chimes in after the deadly deed, this intrigues me! Especially as a way of dealing with a character’s backstory. Backstory is so challenging to write. It engrosses us as authors as we create our characters, and it can be all consuming if we let it. After all, it’s so easy to get caught up in the how and the why of our main players and lose sight of the most important part of the story, the action! Action is where it’s at for the readers, and if there’s too much backstory and too little movement, the story can fall fabulously flat!

And we all want to avoid that dreaded dumping scenario, right? The one where the reader becomes barraged with info. overload in one fell swoop! Or, as renowned crime fiction author Les Edgerton like to call it, doing “The Rubber Ducky” (http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/rubber-ducky.):

“The “Rubber Ducky” is Paddy Chayevsky’s term for when the hero or villain, at a lull in the action, explains that he is the way he is because his mother took away his rubber ducky when he was three…Always a nice scene… And totally unnecessary … It usually comes from not trusting the reader’s or viewer’s intelligence to “get it” ….

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…if all you’re trying to do is give your hero more emotional depth, for the sake of emotional depth, without integrating his back-story into your story, you run the risk of awakening the dread Ducky.” Edgerton

I don’t know how my attempt at incorporating my vic from beyond the grave will turn out, but it seems like going back in time and letting my victim tell some of the tale from an observer standpoint is a great way to deal- in her back-story without awakening that dreaded RD! 

I’m giving it my best shot anyway. Could make my tale so much more present for the reader, involving them intimately in the life of my vic by hearing her own voice relay her rough-ride. Much better her than me! And as author, I so want to get out of my character’s way and let them do the heavy lifting!

lisa ciarfella headshot Lisa’s a recent MFA graduate from California State University, Long Beach. She writes darkly tainted, noir style prose where bad things happen to bad people and not so bad people get caught up in the madness. In 2018, her fiction was featured at http://www.outofthegutteronline.com, Near to the Knuckle.uk, and at Short Mystery Fiction Society’s  https://shortmystery.blogspot.com/2018, as part of theirMay short story month’ series.

You can also find her work at PulpMetalmagazine.com, Nowastedink.com, Ashedit.com, StudentHealth101.com and other places.

By night Lisa’s currently cranking out more short stories and her first crime fiction novel, doggedly pursuing the game! By day, she shepherds high school kids with their daily grind, and on the weekends, likes throwing Frisbees around the beach with her pups and catching ball games.

Find her on Facebook at @lisajohnljc, or on her blog, at Ciarfella’s Fiction Corner

5 thoughts on “Character Observers in Crime Fiction by Lisa Ciarfella”

  1. Thank you so much for the kind references and mention. I think you make a fascinating point about your victim communicating from the other side of the grave. There are certainly ways to do that without the dreaded ‘Rubber Ducky’ syndrome. Letters, diaries, and so on help put the victim’s backstory together. So can the comments of those left behind, at least in my opinion. And an author can do all of that without relying on the paranormal. I wish you well as you work out how you’ll do it.

    1. Hey Margot, glad u dropped by!
      Letters and diaries r such great ideas! A rescourceful detective could easily dig these up, or even a family member or friend. And yeah, the temptation to go paranormal is there, but that could get sketchy quick.
      Working out the kinks!
      😎

    1. Hi Don,
      So great of u to stop over and reblog too! It’s all a learning curve for us crime writers. We solve for X, one piece of the puzzle at a time!
      C u on the dark side 😎

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