NOTE: This post contains spoilers! I am confining my remarks to the relationship arc in The Poet, but these events impact the primary story.
Today I’m going to discuss the issue of character credibility, and why it’s important. I’m doing it in the context of Michael Connelly’s The Poet because I just finished listening to the audiobook and I’m still pissed that such a great author handed me two main characters so lacking in credibility, Jack McEvoy and Rachael Walling. I usually see such problems in books by inexperienced writers, when we are asked to buy a premise that is ridiculous when we consider the actions of the characters. The premise here is that Jack and Rachel had a viable shot at a relationship that is doomed by events during the search for The Poet.
In this case I suspect character credibility the reason there are only two books in the McEvoy series. It’s not the plotting. The storyline is smart. The writing is tight and well-paced. It has to be because I spent much of the book despising Rachael Walling and wanting to smack McEvoy upside his head while resisting the urge to throw my iPod against the wall.
My issue isn’t with McEvoy’s investigative skills. In those he shows remarkable while believable insight while following the trail Connelly lays out. It’s with McEvoy’s love interest, an FBI agent named Rachael Walling.
Walling has a reputation as a stone bitch who has issues with men. Sure enough, her first encounter with McEvoy occurs when she assaults him, putting him on the ground in the process of a scam arrest: She makes him believe she is taking him into custody to scare information out of him that she probably could have gotten by asking nicely. When he figures out he’s been conned and threatens to file charges, she jeers that he would never admit in open court that little old 5’2″ her put him down. McEvoy scolds her but agrees to start over and cooperate when she turns conciliatory (because dominance and aggression didn’t work).
I’m going to digress here. There are three pit bulls living in my basement. They are not mine, they belong to the owner of the two-family I live in. They are all rescues (Don’t feel sorry for them because they live in the basement. These dogs get primo treatment).
Christmas is a love bug and I always have to give her a good scratch when I go downstairs to do my laundry. Bootsy’s temperament is a little standoffish but he wants a pet now and again and takes biscuits from me easily.
Colby is the reason no one besides me and Rudy can go into the basement. He will take a biscuit from my hand but reacts aggressively if I move to pet him, even after several years. He once got out and pinned a friend of mine to the wall. It took several tense minutes to edge her out the front door and herd him back into the basement without getting bitten.
I got the message: Don’t trust this dog. Ever.
Back to McEvoy. Given their beginnings, I expect a smart man to look at Wallings the same way I look at Colby: This woman has ISSUES. Stay far, far away. What does McEvoy do? He forgets how she treated him and starts to lust after her. Because she’s hot. Maybe he has his own issues that draw him to abusive women, but he isn’t presented that way so I have no reason to assume he isn’t Connelly’s idea of a rational male.
That was Credibility Ding # 1, that McEvoy was drawn to Walling’s looks and ignored her actions when those actions almost put him in traction. Many women despise this kind of male short-sightedness, as much as many men despise the way women continually excuse men who beat them. I suspect this by itself has alienated female readers.
Ding #2 came when McEvoy has dinner with Walling and all he can think about is wanting to be with her, and what a schmuck he is because when a woman is important, he can’t make the first move (how did she become important? we are given nothing to support that he not only lusts after her but cares about her, and after knowing her like what, five minutes?) He walks her to her motel room and leaves her without attempting to take the evening further, still castigating himself.
Stone bitches with chips on their shoulders regarding the male gender usually respond to unsolicited advances by filing sexual harassment suits—after using their considerable street combat skills on the schmuck who dared. I would call not making a move on Walling smart. Walling did nothing to indicate she would welcome a move aside from touching his beard, and there was no smouldering look, no suggestive remark, with that touch to indicate it was meant as an invitation. She could have invited him into her room to raid the mini-bar but doesn’t.
While McEvoy continues to regret the pass not made, Walling appears at his door and tells him she’s going to give him a chance to redeem himself. At that point I decided Rachael Walling suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.
Stone bitches who play fair know they need to make their interest clear and they don’t deal in mixed-messages. Otherwise they are supporting the old, “She really wants it even though she doesn’t say so” BS that women have been fighting at least since the 60s. You can say Walling makes the first move, but she does it by putting Jack down, implying he wasn’t man enough to move on her, even though she made no indication such a move would be welcomed. Walling isn’t fair. She’s manipulative, willing to do whatever she thinks will gain her ends, and has issues. She might even be sociopathic/psychopathic.
You can excuse Jack for falling into bed with her. She’s hot-looking and she offers herself. You can excuse him for being stupid when her behavior continues be erratic (including manipulative games with her ex-husband, also an agent on the team), because he’s still getting laid and people who are infatuated are often in denial about the object of their affections, but still:
McEvoy has established himself as an idiot in my head.
I might stop reading now that McEvoy has lost credibility with me, but the pursuit of The Poet, a homicidal pedophile of the nastiest sort, is worthy. Meanwhile, the investigation has a leak. McEvoy starts to connect the evidence with the dots, and Walling’s erratic behavior (and there is much that she does that’s erratic and manipulative that she glosses over by telling Jack to grow up) leads him quite logically to a horrible conclusion about Rachael.
Up to now, The Poet is mostly competent storytelling. I get that Connelly needed Rachael to be a flake for the plot to take the proper shape. He needed Jack to be involved with Rachael for him to know the things he knew to have those dots to connect. But he also needed to make us buy them as characters, as well as buy their relationship, and I couldn’t do that. You can’t have Rachael acting like a psycho bitch and expect us to buy her as misunderstood when the dust settles. As for Jack, his attraction to the crazy woman and blindness to her actions begs for an explanation we are never given.
The icing on this cake is the final resolution:
Rachael blames Jack for reaching the conclusions he did and refuses to forgive him or even listen to him, even though her own behavior would lead any rational person quite logically to the same conclusions. Jack is left mourning the loss of the great love that would never be because he screwed up and didn’t trust her (never mind that she was never trustworthy). He considers following her to Italy where she is said to be on leave. Seriously?
This book could be redeemed. Jack could look at everything that happened and realize Rachael was an entitled, psychotic princess, that she never had anything to give, and he had a narrow escape. Even better, he could tell Rachael she only has herself to blame for his conclusions because she never played straight with him and he doesn’t need a woman who plays games. He could come out of this sadder but wiser about himself, that he invested so much into someone so unworthy. If he had done that, I would not have been left with a sour taste at the end of the book.
In another scenario, Rachael could listen to Jack and realize she invited the whole sorry mess. She could acknowledge the truth about herself. She could for once be honest with Jack and share her truth, whether she realizes she’s damaged and wants to change or whether she likes who she is and Jack was only a means to an end.
Instead, The Poet sinks into romanticizing Rachael Walling, glossing over immature, irresponsible, dishonest behavior and never holding her to account. It asks me to buy Jack McEvoy as a doomed romantic hero instead of a man who is too stupid to live. And that I can’t do.
This is supposed to be a post about writing. I’m hoping I’ve illustrated can happen when you don’t ground your characters well enough. It’s not just their actions that have to be grounded in and consistent with their motivations. You also have to ground their perceptions of the people and events around them. If your characters are not acting/reacting in a logical way according to events; if they are not perceiving those events through a reasonably accurate lens, you need to lay groundwork to address this in a way that will keep your protagonist sympathetic to readers. Otherwise, they might finish the book, but they are unlikely to come back for more.