Guest blog by Marc Strange
Continued from nationalcrimewritingmonth.blogspot.com
Certain stock characters crop in most “classic” mystery novels of whatever sub-set. They’re necessary: a sidekick, an old friend, or a new friend, an abrasive cop, a confidant, a reporter, a bartender, a vicar, you know the list – unless your story unfolds entirely inside the thought processes of your sleuth, he or she is going to talk to people. And if your mystery is also part of an ongoing series of novels, some of these stock characters will be coming back for repeat appearances. So, however familiar and recognizable they may be in a general sense, and how essential to the formal requirements of the mystery, they must be brought to life as distinct individuals.
In the Joe Grundy Mysteries I have a large cast of supporting players who work or visit the Lord Douglas Hotel where Joe is Head of Security: Joe’s sidekick, Wallace Gritchfield, “Gritch”, has been a fixture at the “Douglas” for a very long time and knows every inch of the place. Leo Alexander, the hotel’s owner figures prominently. There is a singer and pianist who presides over the hotel’s jazz lounge, a crime reporter, a police detective, the hotel’s assistant manager, the concierge, a bartender, and a dozen more. The Lord Douglas is a big operation employing hundreds of people. It’s inevitable that they keep turning up, and important that each one play some part, large or small, in the unfolding of the story.
In addition to the recurring characters, your sleuth will come into contact with new people at every turn. Solving a mystery requires the steady accumulation of information, much of it gathered through the questioning of strangers. How the novelist approaches the problem is a personal matter (Ross Macdonald, writer of the “Lew Archer” mysteries, used the Q&A to the point where it was almost ritualistic), but whether you treat your characters as portraits of “real” people, or as formalistic constructs, the undertaking is the same, somehow you must lift them off the page, make them resonate and come alive for your reader.
To bring a character to life you can describe their physical type, what they’re wearing, a peculiarity of speech; you can place them in a setting that echoes or contrasts with who they are; you can play with their attitude toward the sleuth – antagonism, banter, seduction, reticence, or resentment. But don’t describe too much. Be specific. Pick one thing that sums up the character, make it clear, special to them, reinforce it subtly from time to time, but don't beat your reader over the head with it. Allow them to fill in the blanks. A big part of the joy of reading is bringing the imagination to bear. Some writers take it to extremes, describing a character as male or female and pretty much letting it go at that. But whether a writer is generous or chary with the descriptions they will at some point have given an indication, however small, of who the person is, something that allows the reader to form a mental image.
We all have our own way of breathing life into characters. I started out as an actor so part of my pleasure writing mysteries is that I get to play all the parts, good guys, bad guys, men, women, I get to say the lines, work out the conflicts, play the scenes in my head. Another writer might build a personality through observation, keep notes and reminders, eavesdrop on conversations, collect interesting names, or even grab photographs of faces. How you do it is up to you, but it is vital that the people you create be “real” to you. The more you can get inside them, the more “life” you give them.
Finally, although it seems obvious, make sure your secondary characters are distinct from each other. Just as you wouldn’t have two characters named “Joe Smith”, you don’t want two characters who both use the same idiosyncrasy of speech, or have the same attitude toward your sleuth. Each character you create no matter how brief their appearance in the story, must have specificity, and personality.
The “classic” murder mystery is a journey of discovery, just like any other quest novel. It begins with a need to find something, and along the way people will help or hinder, and add to the sum of knowledge even when they’re trying to hide the truth. Each one of these characters is important to the quest, otherwise they shouldn’t be there. Make sure that they not only serve their function as plot points. Make them breathe.
Next week, Part 3 of Strange Thoughts About Characters
Marc Strange is the author of the “Joe Grundy Mysteries” Dundurn Press. His first novel, Sucker Punch, was short-listed for the Ellis Award as Best First Novel, 2008. The second entry, Body Blows, won the Edgar Allen Poe Award as “Best Paperback Original” for 2010. The third entry, Fat Lip, is scheduled for 2011.
Follow Me Down, the first entry in his new series, the “Orwell Brennan Mysteries” ECW Press, was published in May of this year, and two more are on the way, Woman Chased by Crows, scheduled for 2011, and a third entry, as yet untitled, scheduled for 2012.