The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
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Monday, June 18, 2012

Perfect is Boring

Today's guest post is by mystery writer Wayne Zurl, a former policeman turned author.

            When I began writing police mysteries I said to myself, “Aha! This is fiction, not a documentary. I have the opportunity to make everything come out perfectly.”
            I thought it would be cool to create a character with a background similar to mine and fictionalize and chronicle my old cases. I could correct any mistakes or ask the questions that never came to mind or make the clever comments I only thought of the day after. It looked like an “if only” moment—a chance for perfection.
            Then it rained on my parade. The precipitation came in the form of a middle-aged man with lots of experience in publishing and some pretty good ideas. The retired editor turned book-doctor who I hired to assist me during the formative stages of A NEW PROSPECT said, “Your protagonist is perfect. He never makes a mistake. Are you nuts?”
            “Huh?” I said.
            “Perfect is boring,” he said. “Readers like tension. They like uncertainty. Put your character in jeopardy. Screw that perfection thing.”
            “Hmm,” I replied.
            I thought about the concept and remembered reading other mysteries. How many times had I said, “Jeez, a good cop would never do that?” I’d grit my teeth and wait for the ax to fall.
            One of my favorite fictional cops, James Lee Burke’s Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, ALWAYS did something I knew a guy with his experience would NEVER do.
            I’d tremble and say, “Oh, Dave, you know better.”

           Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe knew he should never enter a spooky building alone. He never used backup. He never told anyone where he was going. He created the perfect opportunity for a hood to catch him snooping and hit him over the head.
            It was a commonality throughout fiction. Writers knew perfect characters were boring. Characters who took risks (sometimes stupid risks) created tension. They invited conflict. And tension and conflict sold books.
            I’ve experienced enough tension in my life to have had a liquor bill equal to the gross national product of a small banana republic. So, I’d rather read about a slick detective who does everything right. I’d look at that story as a description of an art form.
            But that little voice inside my head would say, “Too bad, Wayne, you’re one of a VERY small minority of readers.”
            Readers like tension. They love to grimace when their favorite characters foul up and put themselves into a situation which requires fancy footwork to get out from under the catastrophe.
            Remember James Bond when Ian Fleming’s books were more famous than the movies? International thugs captured Bond so many times he qualified for frequent hostage points.
            How about TV’s Jim Rockford? He never worked with a partner who watched his back. And Stephen J. Cannell arranged for him to be clubbed on the head so many times, his skull could have been called Land of a Thousand Concussions.
            But we loved it . . .  and them.
            So, what’s the moral of my story? It’s simple. When we create a protagonist, we must build in a few flaws. Does he or she drink a little too much when they shouldn’t? Does getting buzzed at the wrong time make them miss a crucial clue or forget to duck when the bad guy swings a tire iron? Do they have an uncontrollable big mouth and always say the wrong thing to people with serious political clout? Do they trust the wrong person at the wrong time?
            There are oodles of possibilities. All we have to do is dream up one or more to fit our protagonist’s personality and stick with it in numerous variations. Create that tension. Make your readers squeeze their eyes shut in anticipation. And always give your heroes a way to slither out from under the problem they created. You’ll have the makings of a good series of books or stories.

More about author Wayne Zurl

Wayne Zurl grew up on Long Island and retired after twenty years with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander supervising investigators. He is a graduate of SUNY, Empire State College and served on active duty in the US Army during the Vietnam War and later in the reserves. Zurl left New York to live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with his wife, Barbara.
Fourteen (14) of his Sam Jenkins mysteries have been produced as audio books and simultaneously published as eBooks. Ten (10) of these novelettes are now available in print under the titles of A MURDER IN KNOXVILLE and Other Smoky Mountain Mysteries and REENACTING A MURDER and Other Smoky Mountain Mysteries. Zurl’s first full-length novel, A NEW PROSPECT, was named best mystery at the 2011 Indie Book Awards, chosen as 1st Runner-Up from all Commercial Fiction at the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and was nominated for a Montaigne Medal and First Horizon Book Award. His second novel, A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT, is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle.
For more information on Wayne’s Sam Jenkins mystery series see You can read excerpts, reviews and endorsements, interviews, coming events, and see photos of the area where the stories take place.
Links for places to buy the Sam Jenkins mysteries:


  1. I love having imperfect characters except for the villian. Got to have them above the investigators

  2. Hey Jerry,
    Thanks for inviting me to share an opinion with your fans and followers. Nice to meet everyone. Cheers, wz