My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes what are essentially cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs. And I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.
The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. I have tried putting in a character list at the beginning of a story, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. Or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories.
In addition, many of my characters also have friends, who must necessarily be commented about, especially if they are involved in a mystery, or the characters can have careers–William Hardy is a career police officer, and Dottie Manderson has become the owner and manager of a fashion warehouse–and they are both involved with work colleagues who cannot be completely overlooked.
And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–so again numbers are rising! But each story needs a perpetrator–sometimes more than one, and of course a victim–almost always more than one–and they have their own social and familial connections.
Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.
Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot–of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. But I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.
But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.
I’d like to think they grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, and keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to. And if we don’t, sooner or later we get called into the office and the boss tells us we are going to be unemployed.
My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. It can’t be denied that she can be a bit unforgiving if someone hurts a person she cares about.
Does Dottie grow? I think she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing with attractive young men. After two years of stumbling over corpses, she has become more confident, more caring towards others, she is more mature, and she is growing a career and trying to understand the world around her, losing her childish idealisation of people. But I like to think she stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, and in helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives.
Which of course will bring her into conflict with people: people who manipulate and hurt others, people who do terrible things and try to get away with it, and in the course of her ‘helping’ she will definitely get in the way of a certain police officer trying to solve a case.
As the relationship between herself and William progresses, (spoiler alert) I’m not sure quite how Dottie will manage to solve murders and juggle her business and her family commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? Only time will tell. I have planned several more books, that cover the next couple of years in Dottie’s life but after that… I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family in peace? Maybe we can come back to Dottie in the 1950s when she is a mature woman with more or less independent children? Who knows. Maybe she will be a kind of Miss Marple detective as she gets older. I never felt like I could leave her ageless and frozen in time as some authors do with their creations. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, I am all too aware of the even greater threat looming on her horizon: World War II. How can I leave out something so important and far-reaching in its consequences?
This could well be one of the reasons why about four years ago I began to think about a new series with a new character, who would take over the reins. I’m thinking of Diana Gascoigne, stepping out confidently into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured dress, long hair swinging, ready to take on the modern world.
Keeping it in the family: this has led me to think about the successive generations. Will there be a Dottie-spin-off set in the 1990s? the 2020s? They seem so real to me, I find it hard to believe that they won’t go on and on, one generation giving way to the next, just as we do in the real world.