My characters mean so much to me, they definitely feel real.
Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a large collection of characters (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all, I have a spreadsheet and everything…) so there’s not always space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. I always seem to have a ton of characters, and I tried putting in a character list at the start, I thought it would be helpful but I got complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out. Sorry about that. Maybe you could create your own spreadsheet?
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself of course, and Inspector William 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 isolated individuals brooding alone with their ghosts or their issues. No, mine both have families who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories, or just provide encouragement in low moments.
But making characters 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, and limited skill as a writer.
I think that’s the same for most of us. We always bring our own life experiences, attitudes, beliefs, our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that. However, I’m not young, I’m not elegant or fashion-conscious and so I like to think Dottie is not too much like me. Though I am incredibly nosy.
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 make mistakes or get confused, puzzled or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And, like us, then have to live with the consequences.
I’d like to think they grow. I sometimes stop reading a series if I feel the protagonist continually makes the same mistakes, or acts 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.
Does William grow? I think he grows a little. He becomes more accepting of himself and his situation as a working copper, and doesn’t spend too much time agonising over the past. He makes some stupid mistakes, but Dottie does too, so we have to forgive him, don’t we?
Does Dottie grow? I think she does. When we meet her in book 1, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and 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 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 trying to help people. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. And of course, to help if she can. But she still loves to dance. (With a certain someone…)
Which of course will bring her into conflict with 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 commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family and 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 didn’t want her to be one of those detectives who remains the same age throughout all the books. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, as time passes 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 and still keep this series ‘cosy’? I’m not sure I can.
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. So I came up with Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne, adopted daughter of Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George, confidently stepping out into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured mini-dress, long hair back-combed and flicking up at the ends, ready to take on the modern world. The detective is the son (spoiler again!) of Dottie and William, known as Bill. (I’ve given away quite a bit now…) He has followed his father into the police. Having seen at close quarters his mother ‘meddling’ in police affairs, he tries to warn Dee off, but of course, she doesn’t listen. As he says, ‘She comes from a long line of nosy women.’
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. Maybe there will be a Dottie and a William in the 22nd century, nailing criminals with technology we can only dream of. I hope so.
(and sorry for the really long post this week…)