Kate Flora: I had the privilege, earlier this week, of doing a zoom panel for the Concord Festival of Authors on the topic of how we choose and develop characters for our books. The discussion included two Maine Crime Writer bloggers, Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson and Charlene D’Avanzo, along with another writer, Edwin Hill.
It’s always fascinating to take part in a discussion where the involved authors write different sorts of mysteries and so have different challenges in creating the protagonists for their books. Things may be far different for a cozy than for a gritty police procedural. To staff the books, authors must ask themselves what are the attributes which my character will need in order to be a credible performer of the job they’ve been assigned—whether it’s a burned out detective or a baker of gourmet dog biscuits—and to solve the mysteries that come their way.
Sometimes, as in the case of Kaitlyn’s protagonist, Mikki Lincoln, for her Deadly Edits series, the character is an older woman emerging from retirement to supplement her income. Mikki is given Kaitlyn’s childhood home to renovate, but the rest of her character, and the editing challenges she faces, are things that her author must learn.
In the case of Charlene’s Mara Tusconi, a marine biologist, she draws on her own experiences as a marine ecologist, but must also give her much younger character the skills and strengths to cope with a job that throws her up against the many challenges working as a woman scientist in a man’s field presents.
I began my writing career with what I often call a “Help Wanted” ad. My character had to be brave and strong enough to handle entanglements with bad guys. Smart enough to solve mysteries. She had to have a profession that would allow her to avoid “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” where everyone in the character’s orbit eventually gets killed. Thea answered the ad. I had to learn my tall consultant’s challenges both in finding clothes that fit, and what her world as a consultant to private schools was like. When Andre entered her life, I had to imagine what he’d be like, both personally and professionally, and send the two of them off on a journey where he was sometimes lover, sometimes sidekick, and sometimes antagonist when his protective nature clashed with Thea’s independence.
A bigger challenge presented itself when I decided to develop my interest in the police and the work they do into my Joe Burgess series with three male protagonists. I often tell my writing students that part of the challenge of imagining characters is to understand how they are like you and how they are not. Burgess, Kyle, and Perry were far different from me and it took a lot of interviewing, and time spent around police officers, to bring them to life.
I’ve written enough books now that when I embark on a new character, as I did in the book I wrote last year, The Darker the Night, a large part of the pleasure and challenge is to get to know the new characters. What will their attributes be? What are their secrets? Where are their strengths and weaknesses. What are the narratives in their heads as they learn about the crime and try to solve it. What drew them to their field? What’s their history? Where are their blind spots?
Of course, it is not only protagonists who need our attention. There are also antagonists, a part of our cast that includes not only the bad guy, but other characters who play a role in thwarting our protagonists as they try to solve the crime. It is very important to make bad guys as dimensioned as our protagonists. Bad guys usually believe that they were driven to commit their bad acts. That they were justified. They had to do it. As we like to say in the crime writing biz, the bad guy or gal doesn’t look in the mirror while brushing their teeth and think, “Oh, I am so bad.”
Those other antagonists? The boss. Jealous colleague. Someone higher up the food chain. A spouse. A parent. Anyone whose actions thwart the investigation? They all have to be developed in a way that makes their behavior credible.
Then there are the peripheral characters—friends, family, lovers, witnesses, etc. Our challenge is often how to use them without spending too much time on them or creating reader’s expectations or getting readers too attached to them.
I learned this the hard way. When I wrote the initial draft of my first Joe Burgess mystery, Playing God, I opened the story with a rookie cop, Remy Aucoin, finding a body in a car on a wintery Portland street. Remy was nervous and didn’t quite know what to do, drawing the wrath of my protagonist. Beta readers, though, immediately bonded with Remy, assumed the book was about him, and were disappointed when he disappeared from the story. I had to rewrite the opening to give the scene to Burgess.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, they worm their way into our hearts and become regulars. That’s what Remy did even though I wouldn’t let him steal that scene.
A few things I’ve learned along the way? Don’t give your series character a spouse who will say, “Where are you going? It’s three a.m.” when your character needs to go investigate. And if you’re going to let your character have kids? Be sure you have good childcare lined up. This last is something Thea and Andre will have to deal with soon.