Writing Marnie Rome

To mark the paperback publication of her fourth DI Marnie Rome thriller, QUIETER THAN KILLING, Sarah Hilary describes the inspiration behind her brilliant protagonist.

Posted on October 4, 2017 in Guest Author
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Sherlock Holmes, Tom Ripley and Clarice Starling all play a part in how I write Marnie Rome. Sherlock got in first, whispering in my ear when I was ten about the appeal of a hero with hidden depths. Tom Ripley convinced me that a good character could be made better by being bad. But it wasn’t until I read The Silence of the Lambs and witnessed Clarice Starling’s unique brand of courage, full of very human cracks, that inspiration really took hold.

Looking back, it all seems terribly logical; all roads led to Marnie Rome. But there was a time when I didn’t know she existed, and a time when I thought she was a straight-die detective without secrets of any kind. Perhaps there was a clue in the way she arrived (in a story that came before my debut, Someone Else’s Skin): biker-booted, hiding behind contact lenses. It took a bit of digging to scratch beneath her surface. Marnie doesn’t give up her secrets easily and she has a talent for surprising me, which I hope means she surprises readers, too.

I don’t believe in characters who ‘write themselves’, in case you were imagining something of that sort. Sooner or later you have to sit down and write them yourself. But Marnie has a habit of standing at my shoulder as I write, and shaking her head when I get stuff wrong (such as the time I was about to give her a third cup of coffee and she pointed out that what she actually wanted was a Peroni). Conan Doyle ended up hating Sherlock Holmes, which doesn’t usually happen unless your character has taken on a life of his or her own. I can’t envisage a time when I’ll hate Marnie, but she’s certainly taken on a life that’s at least partly independent of my plans for her. In my latest book, Quieter Than Killing, she surprised me on more than one occasion.

When Someone Else’s Skin came out, someone asked me how hard it was to balance Marnie’s character traits, “She’s psychologically damaged, yet incredibly strong.” Well, I associate strong characters with survival – Marnie’s trauma made her the woman she is; not just strong but compassionate, too. My grandmother, who survived a Japanese PoW camp as a young mother, always said that the trauma she suffered made her a stronger (and better) person. So I think in my mind, the two attributes go hand in hand.

All my favourite characters in fiction are both human and unique. Flawed, yes, but in all the right ways. I like to think Marnie and Clarice Starling would get on a storm.

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