By Nancy Means Wright
In Sophocles’ fifth century B.C.’s Oedipus the King, one of our earliest “mysteries,” it’s the latter’s hubris, and his blind passion to find a killer and rid Thebes of a plague, that leads him to question folk, one by one: Come here…You must answer everything I ask! until he discovers that he himself killed his father and slept with his mother. Centuries later in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, it’s Montresor’s obsessive desire for revenge—since naïve Fortunato “ventured on insult”—that leads the hapless victim down into the damp bowels of the family vaults and doesn’t let go until the last trembly jingle of bells. And no detectives in the story—just the two unforgettable characters.
In 1868, Wilkie Collins set out in his novels “to trace the influence of character on circumstance,” and let his characters “direct the course” of events. In The Moonstone, for instance, the unrequited love of plain, crippled Rosanna for Franklin, and then Rachel’s stubborn silence about something traumatic she’d seen on the night of the diamond’s disappearance, help in large measure to shape the plot.
More recently, in Case Histories, Kate Atkinson’s laid-back detective Jackson Brodie reluctantly tries to solve three old murders. The nonlinear plot is spun through several points of view, and the story leaps in and out of time and the characters’ minds. To me the dead bodies are less significant than the three-dimensional characters whom she portrays with humor, humanity, and surprise. The novel is a brilliantly written subversion of the detective-thriller.
So I say: choose a flawed, but passionate character, and let the rumpus begin!
Nancy Means Wright has published 15 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. A longtime teacher, actress-director, Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Wright lives with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats on a dirt road in the environs of Middlebury, Vermont. Please visit her web site: ww.nancymeanswright.com