Values: Tools and Jewels

 I’ve been working on a stand-alone mystery for a while now. Quite a while, actually. Maybe too long. But, because it is the only book that will feature my protagonist, everything I write about her seems very important. Very.

It’s made me think about books that I love and why. I keep coming back to the notion that what a character values most is the driving theme in those stories. I’m a big fan of police procedurals, especially British and Irish one. Tana French, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, and Ann Cleeves’ series all have heroes who are driven to pursue justice for their victims. Their stories, the particulars, are all secondary to that theme. Louise Penny’s cast of characters seeks a sense of belonging, while preserving their identities as strong individuals. Thrillers, traditional mysteries, and cozies are all based on what the protagonist values. James Patterson’s Alex Cross. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Barbara Ross’s Maine Clambake series features a protagonist who is trying to save the family business, which will save the family.Justice. Belonging. Family. Values.  During my thirty-plus years practicing family law I learned what people value most becomes apparent when they are getting divorced. Most people are terrified about losing the family they love, as they know it, even if they are the one pursuing the divorce. Sometimes, a parent who has only exhibited a casual interest in his children will transform into the parent of the year. Other people mourn the loss of in-laws who have become family to them, even though they had complained about their prolonged visits. Then, there is the loss of “stuff,” which often boils down to the battle of “tools and jewels.” As soon as he starts touting the exorbitant amounts he paid for her jewelry, she demands an accounting of all of those “fancy-ass tools you bought yourself.” Possessions become symbols of what a spouse values and is about to lose. Loss. The threat that one is about to lose that which he or she values most must lurk beneath all of the events in a story, just as it does in real life. If your character doesn’t care enough about what’s going on in a plot, it may be that’s because you haven’t given him reason to care. Values are our reasons to care. If your character doesn’t have them, your readers won’t care any more than he does. What values do you find most compelling in stories?

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