It is vitally important to flesh out the characters in a novel. They must leap from the pages vivaciously like real living beings. And nobody is more important than that of the protagonist of the story. Nothing will kill a book quicker than a Flat Stanley character with no depth—physically, emotionally, or mentally.
Langdon, Clay, and 8 Ballo can’t just be PIs perusing the pages pursuing the baddies. Why? Because we, the writer and readers, must care about them. They need a favorite color. Unrealized dreams and heartache. Love, desire, and lust. Pet peeves such as people who don’t know how to use blinker signals.
Unless it is a horror book, nobody cares about a skeleton flittering through the story arc. We all know that those with no names and descriptions are going to be the first to die. To bring the invisible to visible, a character has to be imbued with traits that we associate with humanity, good and bad, and creates a sense of caring.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber, and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.”— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I trust that everybody agrees with my assessment of the necessity of pumping substance into a character by giving them likes, dislikes, wants, backstory, dreams, and a personality. Why, then, are these characters not allowed to have a political or social opinion?
It does not have to be infused into every page punching the reader in the face, but the reality is that human beings have opinions, and most have strong points of view regarding political and social issues.
My last three books deal with wendigos, gangsters, and cartels striving for world domination. Three things that people can come together against, even if there is a subtle idolization of gangsters throughout history, or, at least, much more than wendigos and evil cartels.
But I have also written a historical fiction castigating the anti-Black equality white supremacist attitude in much of the South after the Civil War. I’ve stepped onto a limb and suggested that in 1959, Fidel Castro was a rock star and a hero the entire world over, especially here in the US. I’ve gone after Big Pharma, cult-like religions, analyzed genome editing, and attacked antivaxxers. Not me, necessarily, but the protagonists of my mysteries. Men and women who have opinions.
Infusing my people with opinions of a political or social issue has been one of the largest pieces of criticism that I have received. “This was a good book but no reason to be stating a political belief. One Star.” That sort of thing from reviewers who also happen to be haters. And the standard advice I hear is to leave politics and social opinions off the pages.
Of course, this does not pertain to those who have reached fame and fortune in the writing world. Once you reach the top of this artistic field, it seems, you can do whatever you want. But until you reach that plateau, your art is meant to be redacted, so that political and social beliefs are left in the waste basket of editorial despair.
What say you, readers and writers? Should characters, protagonists, antagonists—have political and social opinions or should they remain a Flat Stanley in those particular viewpoints?
Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.
Cost has published five books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, just released in August of 2023. He has also published four books in the Clay Wolfe Trap series, with the fifth, Pirate Trap, due out in December of 2023.
For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost combined his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry. City Gone Askew will follow in April of 2024.
Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.