Monday, May 23, 2011

Meditating on What Makes Poirot a Good Series Character

In her career, Agatha Christie came up with, not one, but two iconic characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Today we’ll look at Poirot, seeing why he’s a good focal point for a mystery series.

In her Autobiography Christie gives a detailed account of the genesis of the The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By now the main facts are well known: the immortal challenge – ‘I bet you can’t write a good detective story’ – from her sister Madge, the Belgian refugees from the First World War in Torquay who inspired Poirot’s nationality….” ~John Curran, The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie, describing the impetus for Christie’s first novel.

As you can see, inspiration can come from any- and every- where. Because of her sister’s challenge, Christie was thinking ‘detective’ or ‘inspector’. Then, because of the Belgian refugees, Christie brought in a well-traveled foreign inspector (who continues to be well-traveled throughout his so-called retirement). The benefits of this are obvious: it adds a certain mystique, it allows for travel to different locations later, and, last but certainly not least, possibilities for multiple cases are endless because of Poirot’s profession.

Most of Christie’s books involve Inspector Poirot. Something about him must have 1. caught her fancy and 2. caught her readers’ fancy. I think that the pieces of his character that make him appealing could easily be applied to others who are trying to create a character that will live through multiple books (whether mystery genre or otherwise).

Here are some things that I think work well with Poirot that would translate to other characters:

Poirot is smart. In order for a character to have universal appeal, they can’t be stupid. Stupid sometimes equals funny (which is not universal – something can be funny to one person and not the next), but otherwise it equals annoying. Readers want characters who can hold their own in conversations and pay attention to what’s going on in the story. Smart, insightful characters also serve as a key to pay attention to what is important.

Poirot is quirky. Quirky is different than funny. This guy doesn’t fit into the norm of everyday situations. He’s got an odd fashion sense, he wants everything to be neat and orderly, and he travels everywhere. It gives him perspective that others don’t have.

Poirot is concerned about the other characters. He is fascinated with their lives, quirks, motivations, and foibles. That makes the readers interested too. Since Poirot loves Hastings, for example, the early stumbling Watson with a penchant for redheads to Poirot’s Holmes, is that much cooler to the reader because Poirot hangs out with him.

Poirot can take a backseat. While Poirot is a great character, it’s rare that we see into his personal world. The story is always about a family in crisis, or a situation that he is not inherently involved in. This allows the other characters to shine through – therefore the reader can focus on the central issues.

What do you think are some good character traits for a series character?

3 comments:

  1. I love Poirot, and you know, for the longest time didn't read the Marple books because I was worried that I wouldn't like her as much as Poirot!

    Good question - I think... a series character ought to be quirky but not too quirky. Qwilleran from the Cat Who books is a good example - he's got defining traits but also moments of regular-guy-ness.

    Oh, guess what? I'm hosting a charity book fair at work and someone donated a novel that features Sayers and Christie solving a crime together. A funny sort of fan fiction!

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  2. Saw over at Tracy Edward Wymer's site that your husband will teach middle school soon. If he needs to keep up-to-date on books for this age group, send him over to my blog. And good luck to him!

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  3. Poirot is also vain--in both his looks and his ability as a detective.

    Quirks are great, but I'm seeing the same ones in a lot of the mysteries I've been reading lately. Especially with the female protagonists. She's addicted to coffee! And shoes!

    A strong moral compass helps with a series character, too, I think. It may not be the same compass the reader would use (thinking Mal Reynolds here), but it's consistent. When the character has to act against that compass, it should take something away from him.

    Darn you for making me think and stuff all the time.

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