Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beyond Character Foils with Karin Slaughter

or, Betty Makes Me Love Will More
If you read Karin Slaughter’s crime fiction/thrillers, then you know Will and Betty. If you don't, then pick up Slaughter's newest release, Criminal, and be prepared to stay up all night hiding under the covers and reading by flashlight. Slaughter will take you on an electrifying ride with characters you’ll love and hate, and scenes so scary that for days after you'll be as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Slaughter is a talented writer and she’s skilled at nuance. This is especially apparent when writing about Will and Betty. In a Will Trent thriller, Slaughter devotes maybe 500 words to Betty. Yet, when the book is done, I know it is Betty that allowed me the most poignant glimpses into Will’s psyche. Betty's character is a foil for Will's but not in the standard Laurel and Hardy type of contrast. This is deeper and much more subtle. writes that a ‘foil’ is a literary device where the author creates a character whose primary purpose is to present a contrast to another character. We all know some great examples of foils: Ginger and Mary Ann, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hasting.

Character foils are useful in fleshing out a character in a show don't tell way. By painting a portrait of the adoring and dense Captain Hastings, Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot appears even more cerebral and urbane. Mary Ann’s pigtails contrast sharply with Ginger’s glamorous bouffant hair-do, and the BBC’s Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the genius Holmes makes Dr. Watson look like a torpip, imbecile, not to put too fine a point on it. 

That’s not what Betty does for Will. Will’s partner, Faith, is a great foil for Will. She’s short, he’s tall; she’s an insider, he’s an outsider; she’s outspoken, he’s reserved; she smooth, Will is awkward. Faith tells Will that he has all the social graces of a feral monkey. Granted Will’s got some issues (he’s got more baggage than steerage in the Titanic), but to my knowledge he isn’t masturbating in public and flinging feces. 

So, as a foil, how is Betty different and why does it matter?

At her most superficial level, Betty’s feminity is a perfect foil for Will’s masculinity. Why? Because, Betty is a 6 pound chihuahua wearing a pink collar. Will likes to scoop her up and tuck her under his arm like a bug-eyed clutch. It should make him look ridiculous. It doesn’t. Betty only enhances Will’s masculine charms and makes him more endearing.

Slaughter could have stopped there. Betty as an accessory—like the purse-riding chihuahua in Legally Blonde. But, Betty goes deeper. Betty is the outward symbol of Will’s decency and kindness. This is important because considering Will’s troubled childhood of abuse and deprivation, he could be a monster, like the murderers he chases and finds. But he isn’t. Will rescued Betty. He built her a koi pond so she’s wouldn’t be bored while he’s a work. He is (mostly) not ashamed to be seen in public with her. He has mother-hen-like moments of caring for Betty that tell the reader: this is good man. He’s definitely husband and father material—once you clear up the issues with the ex-wife.

This is what Slaughter says about Will: I think women love him because he does the dishes without having to be asked.  …he's a very complicated man with some dark secrets…he doesn't let his past ruin the present.  He doesn't mope around.  He doesn't try to get pity... he's age appropriate, meaning he's responsible, has a good job and doesn't sit around all day playing video games. (Click here to read interview)

Will Trent is an incredibly popular fictional character. So much so, that “his” books are going to be made into a TV series (learn more). Betty has had a hand (uh, paw) in building Will’s popularity by being more than an accessory, by providing a deeper exploration of this complex character and that is why Betty makes me love Will more.

How are you using character foils and pets in your own work? I’d love to hear from you.


  1. This was a great post Shellie, and a REALLY interesting topic. I love it when writers give pets to their characters, but I never actually thought so much about how the pets actually define the characters. When I as a teenager, one of my favorite series was Lillian Jackson Braun's Jim Qwilleran books. Qwilleran solved mysteries with the help of his Siamese cat Koko. I still like re-reading those books. :-) This topic definitely gives me something to think about! Thanks!

  2. Hi Misha,

    Braun's "The Cat Who" series is great one! Koko and Yummy are partners with Quill as he seeks answers to life mysteries. They do help to tell us a lot about Quill--his fastidiousness, love of literature, and sensitive mustache.

    I've got a dog in my manuscript, Deadly Secrets. It seems almost every book idea I have has a dog in it. In Deadly Secrets, Jake's dog "Fred" (a massive and lazy yellow lab)has two purposes-- that I'm aware of.

    First, Fred's breed and temperament say a lot about Jake--masculine, laid back, nothing to prove but can take care of business when necessary, nature-loving.

    Second, Fred's heroic act in the book symbolizes Jake's own heroism as they both fight to save the heroine.

    For all that, I don't think I've managed to say anything truly deep about Jake via Fred. I'll have to think about that.


  3. Awesome post, Shellie. Yes, Betty works very much like the "Save the Cat" device Blake Snyder coined, where when we see a character showing compassion, we find them more appealing. Great reminder. Love seeing these examples in action. Thanks for the recommendation. I will pick up one of "Will's" books. ;0)

  4. I don't know the 'save the cat' device, Candy. Thanks for letting me in on that. I suppose the opposite is 'kick the puppy'--excellent when showing the opposite characteristics.


  5. Though lots of professionals in the publishing industry aren't fans of secondhand sales--and when those sales cut writers from their income stream, that's with good reason--I first came across Karin Slaughter in a thrift store's clearance sale. and I've been buying her novels "first hand" ever since!

    Her characterizations are intense! And you're right, Shellie, her foils always heighten that!

  6. I listened to one of Karin Slaughter's books on CD a few years back and really like it. I remember really liking Will and feeling great sympathy. I don't think he had Betty in that book. I'd love to read the one where he rescues her and they beging their relationship. I like what Karin says about WIll be "age appropriate."