Suspicious Characters

Who is suspicious? The idea of suspicious characters is old — the stranger venturing into an isolated kingdom, the new resident in a small town, the individual that looks different or the person with unusual habits all become “suspicious characters.”

            For most of history, just being different — wearing strange clothes or not participating in a community’s social life — could make anyone suspicious. To a great extent this is still true. People who are different are often suspected of crimes they didn’t commit.

            The idea of suspicious characters comes up again and again in crime fiction — when the “suspicious character” is the foil or Red Herring created by the author to deflect the detective, and the reader, from the true criminal, who is often a likeable and trusted figure hiding in plain sight.

            But what about in real life — do we still assume the stranger is a thief? Do we suspect the new guy of pilfering from the store’s cash register more than the longtime employee whom we know has a problematic gambling habit? Familiarity breeds comfort and hampers our radar.

            In cities like New York — cities that have been targeted by terrorists — we’re told to keep our eyes open for people who leave packages on the subway or seem to be up to trouble. But what are we looking for? The suspicious character and how we define that “outsider/troublemaker” says a great deal about who we are. Are we really noticing that stranger dropping a briefcase on the floor of the train car OR are we just taking in an appearance that we label as foreign or strange and deciding that his behavior is unusual.

            In fiction and in life, it pays to observe both the good and suspicious characters and to take a serious look at our own definitions of “suspicious.”


    • Candy Korman

      LOL! And some of my best friends might meet the requirements for “suspicious characters” by other people’s standards. Still, I’m very interested in how we determine that a person is suspect. Do they look “funny”? Dress in odd clothes? Have a weird look in their eyes? People reveal themselves, their inner selves, in all sorts of ways and one good measure is to see who/how they determine who’s OK and who is suspicious.

  1. In the grand scheme suspicious people is anyone who isn’t like us. Mind you this isn’t PC. We are supposed to accept everyone equally while at the same time calling out the dangerous and strange looking ones. Lord only knows that the person over there with the dreadlocks and tatoos, well he might be a republican.

    The sad thing is there are so many inconsistencies and double talk that you really never know anything about others till you spend some time with them.

    The worst thing these commandments make for us is a society where no one trusts anyone around them.

    • Candy Korman

      You’ve summed it up very well.

      Part of my freelance writing life is work for TSA (not the transportation security authority, but the Tourette Syndrome Association — the OTHER TSA). People with neurological disorders, like TS, have involuntary movements that can make them seem “peculiar” and when people are looking for DIFFERENT they often get pegged. In the larger scheme it’s like suspecting someone because they have diabetes which, unless the crime is somehow connected to a wayward insulin response, is ridiculous. But in a one-on-one situation it’s easy to see how a person with facial tics might be assumed to be nervous and therefore suspicious.

      The dual messages are part of our culture and our history from the Alien and Sedition Act, signed into law by President John Adams, through today. That’s why I think as people we should think hard about our “suspicious criteria” and as writers we should observe what people do when they suspect someone else and why.

  2. I’m the person sitting at the airport who will always be asked by others, “Will you please keep an eye on my bag while I go to the restroom?” Any of those handful of times could have been a bomb waiting to go off…. It’s easier for society to enforce fear rather than acceptance anyway you look at it. What I want to know is why aliens who come to planet Earth in stories are almost always viewed with such suspicion and have evil intentions.

  3. In an era of constant communication and global connectedness, everything is seemingly “suspicious.” I only have to point to last night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio. Miami Heat and LeBron James going for their 3rd straight championship. San Antonio Spurs, which had last year’s title all but wrapped up before the epic comeback/collapse (depending on your POV) of Game 6 turned the tide Miami’s way.

    Anyway, last night, game 1, the A/C system fails. Temperature in the arena goes up to 90+. Same conditions for both clubs, of course. But Le Bron James has a history of cramping and, with the Heat nursing a 5 point lead and 7 minutes to go, as if on cue, LeBron’s leg muscles lock and seize up. He couldn’t walk much less play. And San Antonio quickly turns that deficit to a 17 point rout.

    Suspicions abound across the media, social and otherwise. Did San Antonio’s facilities managers deliberately sabotage the A/C? Suspicious. Did LeBron simply gag in the heat of the moment (puns intended)? Suspicious. Or did he simply cramp and that’s that? Not suspicious and thus not really fit for discussion.

    • Candy Korman

      Conspiracy theories abound — and yes even in the world of sports where, in the best of situations, people from different parts of the world, with different cultures and ideals, can meet and mingle and enjoy the same thing.

      Sabotaging the A/C?! I don’t know. Seems like a suspicious conspiracy theory because it hurts way too many people and could backfire. Don’t you think?