Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Power of a Great Character

I was nine and I had a big round movie theater box of popcorn. I sat with my parents and our family's close friends in a gilded and velvety balcony at a reduced-price double feature in an old theater where one of my great aunts used to usherette in its (and her) heyday.

We had gone because one of the movies was a newish action adventure thing that was popular with kids and the other movie was starring Judd Nelson, who apparently, my mom appreciated.

The action adventure movie was first, and it started innocently enough, with a sick little boy in bed, and his grandfather, who was reading him a book.

I remember the gasp of surprise and the happy smile of all of the adults when the grandpa (just a regular old guy, as far as I knew) began to read in a distinct, gravelly voice with more than a hint of New York.

“Is it?”

“It is!”

“This is Fantastic!”

“He’s so old!”

And on and on. The best surprise in this movie, as far as I was concerned, was when the Dread Pirate rolled down the long hill crying out “As you wish!” to the lady he loved.

But to the four grown ups that watched with us, the best surprise was seeing their old friend Columbo again.

Almost 30 years later, my husband and I have Netflix. Having watched all of Poirot, most of Marple, all of Kingdom, all of Rosemary and Thyme…not having the stomach for the bloody, gory, American police dramas, we decided it was time to give Columbo a chance.

I’ve got to say, if it weren’t for Peter Falk and his old dog, his thoughtfulness towards his wife, his “Oh, and there was just one little thing that was bothering me,” Columbo would be the worst mystery show in the whole wide world. But it isn’t the worst—it’s a great show.

Perhaps most of my complaints are because the style and effects are over fifty years old. So, we can scratch the wobbly cameras, wah-wah bar, early computerized music, and addiction to colored gels on the lights off the list of complains. Though casting Leonord Nemoy as a murderous doctor is still a point against the show.

So what is so bad about Columbo? The episodes start by showing the audience who died, who the murderer was, how they did the crime, and usually they show us why as well.

So much for the big mystery.

We aren’t left with anything to solve. But we do get to watch the unassuming Columbo in his bondo-buggy and crumpled overcoat make the bad guys squirm, and because Columbo is someone we’d stop for coffee with, we like it.

One of the regular complaints about my mystery series is that Mitzy is too perfect, and therefore not quite likeable to some people. I was going for a humorous archetype, writing her for my own pleasure and without the idea of publication in mind, so likeability and relatabilty weren’t high on my list of character qualities. I wanted her to be an amalgamation of some of my favorite Realtors from shows like House Hunters, silly and wise and successful and young all at the same time. I wanted her big blonde hair and art nails to make people groan (who knew way back in 2009 that fingernail art would come back in style!)

But that’s Mitzy, and we are talking Columbo. Almost fifty years after Columbo first aired he is still a likeable, sympathetic character, and despite two generations of style evolutions his show is still fun to watch. Why? Because the show creator invented a lovable character for the audience to cheer for.

As a takeaway, have a list of four Columbo-Qualities that make for a powerful, sympathetic character:

  1. He’s humble. Unlike Sherlock, Poirot, or House, Columbo never boasts about his great skills of detection. He approaches each mystery like he might not be able to solve it…unless of course you would answer just this one little question that has been bothering him.
  2. He’s kind of a mess: Columbo enters a scene and you feel a little bad for him. He never has a match, his jacket hasn’t been to the dry cleaners in years, and for whatever reason his very old car still needs a paint job. He’s a relatable note in the always sunny, always rich Southern California he keeps safe.
  3. He pays attention to detail: Readers and viewers love seeing the minutia in a mystery. All the small pieces add up to the big picture. Columbo doesn’t miss one, and therefore neither do we, the audience. For example, last night Columbo solved the crime because he noticed that when a person fell into the trash compactor, it automatically stopped. A hearing man would have heard the noise stop and turned the machine back on with the manual lever, so the deaf man must have done it.
  4. He’s a softy: In any given episode of Columbo we might see him call home so his wife could talk to a movie star, pick up a pot of flowers for her, or take his old dog to the vet. Even if you want to have a big bruiser for the star of your mystery, one little soft spot will go a long way to making your audience love him.

Traci Hilton is the author of the Mitzy Neuhaus Mysteries, The Tangle Saga, and her fifth novel which is a finalist in the Write Integrity Press Books of Hope Contest. She lives not far from the infamous Portlandia with her two kids, her mandolin playing funeral directing husband, and her dog, Dr. Watson. She has been known to "put a bird on it" because putting a bird on it makes anything art.


  1. Traci--Columbo is one of my all-time favorite detectives. What a quirky character! And he always got his man, or woman.

  2. Absolutely! I really love him, and his show! A great character can overcome any story telling mistake. : )

  3. I so wanted to comb Columbo's hair, wash his trench coat and take that nasty cigar out of his mouth - and yet, those quirks made him memorable, didn't they? A true "character." I don't know how some authors come up with quirky characters unless they're quirky themselves. Me? Allow me to pour you a cup of tea, and please don't mess up my house! Traci, I'm sure you being a nice person can't help but spill over into your character.

    ~Nancy Jill

  4. : ) I have noticed a penchant for my characters to be cheap and have big mouths! lol.

    Columbo needed a good spring cleaning, didn't he? But he was just such a nice fellow.

    1. Ha,ha! That's telling Traci! If Columbo ever comes on I always watch it.

      ~Nancy Jill

  5. Write what you know, right? ; D We watch Columbo on Netflix...I swear Netflix is a mystery lovers dream service. We watched Marple and Rosemary and Thyme last night!


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