What they do and what they say

[September 2012] What do we know about characters in books we read? Unless they are viewpoint characters, we know only what they look like, what they do and what they say. Their characters are the sums of their actions and statements.

I just finished reading Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Robert Goldsborough. After Stout died, Goldsborough wrote a Wolfe novel for his mother. Ultimately it was published with the approval of the estate and he went on to write several more. After a twenty year break, he returned to the famous detective with an “origin story.”

I’m tempted to say that the Nero Wolfe novels are formulaic, but what I mean to say is that the characters are, for the most part, defined by a limited set of attributes. The secondary characters—Wolfe’s house staff, the detectives who help investigate cases, and the cops who scoop up the culprits that Wolfe hands them—are paper-thin. Somewhere between one and two dimensions. One cop stutters when agitated. Another chomps cigars that he throws at trash bins but always misses. One detective has a big nose, another is good at mundane jobs, and a third is a lady’s man who aspires to replace Archie Goodwin as Wolfe’s #2.

Nero Wolfe himself, though he is the nominal focus of the series, is basically the sum of a bunch of well-known foibles. His description is so locked-in that he appears OCD. He always sleeps in yellow pajamas. He breakfasts alone. He spends four hours a day tending to his orchids—and always the same four hours. He never leaves the house. He drinks beer and keeps the bottle caps in his desk drawer as a way of monitoring his consumption. He weighs 1/7 of a ton. Once all the facts are brought to him by his detectives, he retreats into his prodigious mind. While he cogitates, his lips purse in and out and it would take a bomb blast to disturb him. He doesn’t suffer fools, not even gladly. One reason Goldsborough was so successful at continuing where Stout left off was that most of the characters were absolutely defined. Goldsborough knew the rules. If Wolfe left the house, there had to be a good reason. If he wasn’t in the hothouse between 9 and 11 a.m. and from 4 to 6 p.m., something was amiss. All he had to do was craft a good mystery, provide the clues and let Wolfe be gruff and figure things out.

The real challenge comes with the first person narrator, Archie Goodwin, because he’s the loose cannon. Though he has certain well-defined traits (he’s a bit of a lady’s man, he often drinks milk, he’s a smart-ass, etc.), he’s the most three-dimensional of all of Stout’s characters. We spend our time inside his head, and we see Wolfe and the others only from his perspective. Capturing his whimsical, fresh, breezy persona is the essence to creating a successful Nero Wolfe novel. All the other parts that make up the book come from a cookie cutter. Fail with Archie, though, and no matter how clever the mystery, the book will fail, too.

The new book presents a different challenge. While Wolfe is already set in stone, as are most of the other secondary characters, Archie is fresh from the farm, so to speak. He’s only 19, looking to make his way in New York after leaving Ohio. He isn’t a detective, he doesn’t know Wolfe (or New York, for that matter). To create his character, Goldsborough has to extrapolate backwards to conjure up the young man who would evolve into the well-known and well-loved character. Some of his traits are consistent with what we know, but he’s not yet fully formed. That gives some license, but he has to be recognizable. It’s a fascinating exercise and Goldsborough pulls it off.

There aren’t many series where the characters are so rigidly and minimally designed. Though we know very little about Saul Panzer, when I close my eyes, I can picture him. The same goes for Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. What the author doesn’t supply, the reader fills in. It can be instructive to read series like this to understand how authors build characters. How much they choose to say—or how little. We do learn some things about Nero Wolfe’s past over the course of the series, but for the most part he’s an enigma. It isn’t necessary to understand more about him. He’s a precision tool, and he serves his function. He’s Archie’s sounding board and his foil. In some circumstances, he’s a mentor and in others he’s a nemesis. Because of him, we learn more about Archie, and Archie is who he is in great part because of Wolfe.

No punch line here. Just more random musings that occurred to me when I thought about the mystical art of writing.

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