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?

The Solution to the Pop-Up Character Syndrome in Mysteries

During a critique session, years ago, one of our group members submitted a first-chapter of a novel she was working on. Members of the group had taken her pages home, read it over for the month, marked it up, and then we all came back to discuss–which is our M.O. Rarely is it the case that a group of our size concurs on an issue (there’s always one or two dissenters somewhere) but this one was unanimous:

Too many characters, too soon. It read like a pop-up shooting gallery.

I think that this is a verrrry common writing sin/mistake/problem, found particularly in the mystery genre. Let’s face it, the structure of a mystery requires a lot of characters. You’ve gotta have the investigator, the criminal, the red herrings, the random other people who interfere in the investigation…and let’s not forget the victim in this hubbub. How can a writer possibly avoid this chaotic assortment of characters? How on earth do you sort out the madness?

Well, if we’re following Agatha Christie’s example (and we are) then you do this: slow the heck down!

There’s this feeling when you’re writing a mystery that you must have everyone onstage now–so you can get to the murder–so you can get to the puzzle–so you can get to the next part that is sooo awesome!

Hold up, bub.

A mystery also requires that the reader understand who these characters are, what their relationships are, and what the possible motives are. If you don’t get that down, then the reader will actually be bored with your amazing plot twists because the reader won’t follow what’s going on.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery (and I believe her first book in general–but don’t quote me, I’ll have to double check), Christie shows an amazing ability to introduce characters. And it’s because she takes her time. Two chapters go by before the murder occurs.

Each character gets his/her own introductory section. And guess what? It could go on for more than a paragraph. Don’t think that you have to go: “This is Sally. She beautiful and is in debt up to her eyeballs [to steal a line from one of my favorite commercials]. She was once in love with Tony [who you have given a previous paragraph of introduction to] but married Lou on a drunken weekend in Tibet” and then proceed with the action. That brief description tells us a little about Sally, and gives credence to a motive somewhere (maybe). But there’s no emotional involvement, there’s nothing to give us more about her personality, there’s nothing to make us invest in her.

Now, let’s look at the Dame her-own-self:

“I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John’s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle age as I remembered her. She certainly could not be a day less than seventy now. I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful. She was a most generous woman, and possessed a considerable fortune of her own.”
~Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

And that’s just the intro paragraph for this woman. Off the bat we know several things about her: energetic, generous, rich, handsome, raised kids who weren’t hers, etc. Christie then proceeds to explain Mrs. Cavendish and her family in more detail. We meet her stepson, John, and the narrator, Hastings, as they discuss the people they’re about to arrive at Styles. John gives the rundown on the family situation, and that dialogue description is backed up by Hastings’ own recollections about the family. The family takes a chapter by itself.

Then the next chapter is all about the family’s interactions.

Guess what? None of it is boring. When a reader picks up a mystery, she is expecting a puzzle, and she will want to know the puzzle pieces. So, as a writer, you have more time than you think you do.

Have you ever fallen prey to the ‘pop-up’ character trap? How do you avoid it? Is this a problem for other genres?