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Character Development in Crime Novels -- by David Kilner

An enduring debate among writers, teachers and readers of crime fiction is how much character development should a detective undergo, not only within one novel but from one novel to the next?

Some are adamant that no character development is allowed. The detective is seen as a ‘catalyst hero’ who affects others but is unaffected by them or by their  experiences, no matter how fraught. Traditional examples would be Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and Miss Marple while more recent examples include Detective Colombo and Phryne Fisher.

The detective, while possessing a fine moral compass that leads them to fight evil, remains untouched by even the hardest of villains or the roughest of deals, and never changes from one story to the next.

Yet this is perhaps a false perception. Even Sherlock Holmes was moved and disturbed by Irene Adler. Philip Marlowe, the quintessential hard-boiled private eye, was deeply and negatively affected by the events in The Big Sleep (See

I recently read an article in which the author claims that Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s best known character, becomes worn-down over time by the horrors he witnesses, the writer says of David Suchet, the epitome of Poirot on TV:

Suchet has subtly aged the investigator, with greying moustaches and increasing stiffness in the skippy little walk he gave the detective. More importantly, there is an increasing sense of the accumulated weight of the cases on him. Although the plots are generally preposterous, the actor provides a centre of gravity, never letting go of the fact that, from the war to his work, Poirot has had too much connection with death. (See ).

While there are plenty of examples of unchanging detectives in modern times, there are also others who have a definite character arc involving change and personal development.

In Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, Lynley is tortured by the murder of his wife Helen, to the point where he is incapable of working and takes off on a long walk by himself. His sidekick Barbra Havers undergoes character development when, after initially succumbing,  she is refuses to be pressured into changing her image and dress code by her superior officer.

The underlying personality of these characters does not change but, like all of us, they have experiences which affect them and lead to personal growth and development.

Which is why I am tiring of Phryne Fisher and her faithful detective Jack Robinson – one more longing gaze and I’m switching off! Just get on with it.


Posted by David Kilner 3 Apr 2014 at 00:07
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Responses to this blog

Blandcorp 2 May 2014 at 08:22  
Some are adamant that no character development is allowed.
I wonder if this is quite the right way to put it. For example, I for one would argue the detective is a refreshing respite from the dogma of character arcs. Because, by and large, the writerly wisdom we are fed requires characters to change. This, supposedly, creates interesting and engaging prose, with complex, realistic characters/people.

But otoh, people, real people, don't change as much as we'd like to think. Then, stories are not necessarily meant to be faithful depictions of reality. Finally, the fact that a vastly successful genre of fiction- the crime novel- largely dispenses with the need for character arcs shows the "you need it to engage" claim to be bogus.

So, imo, you're arguing for the status quo here, which is not the most interesting position to have until someone challenges the status quo first

Status quo is the writerly wisdom I alluded to. The crime novel provides an example of its ... let's just charitably call it incompleteness, and thus offers us the reassurance (or terror?) that not all books have to be the same. You don't have to have an evolving underdog. You don't have to write a picaresque story. You don't have to write always and forever according to some approximation of the Hero's Journey.


Spiny 2 May 2014 at 08:51  
A while back, Chuck Wendig had a blog post about the need for a change in a novel. If nothing changes, then what's the point. I brought up mysteries. The detectives rarely change in any way at all. Very few of the Holmes stories need to be read in a specific order to make sense of them. Poirot and Marple will sometimes allude back to a previous case, but with the exception of Curtain, and possibly Nemesis, they can be read in any order as well. Nero Wolfe had one semi-trillogy in which he had two cases that crossed path with a major crime figure before actually tangling with him, and there are a couple of other minor things that would place one book before or after another.

But in all cases, the characters remain the same. Wolfe and his compatriots didn't even age.

On the other hand, lady Georgiana Runnoch of the "Royal Spyness" series by Rhys Davis does grow from book to book. The first five seem to have spanned only a year in her life, but she's clearly more worldly and independent than she was before. She might be a good replacement for Phryne Fisher, incidentally. There are many similarities in style and time frame. They do take a long time to get to the body, though.

When I asked about mystery on Mr. Wendig's blog, he replied that mystery wasn't about change. It was about correcting change. The change in a mystery happens when someone dies. At that point, all lives are altered and it's up to the detective to restore normalcy.

In my own series, my detective does grow. Sometimes on the page and sometimes between books. He lost a hand about ten months before the first one and he's still working through that. Over time, he'll accept it. He'll develop relationships and suffer losses that will affect him in various ways.
I'm not evil!
An evil person would actually DO the things I think up.
My Blog including an as yet incomplete writer's guide to firearms.

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