Extras complaining to the author about not having a name – again.
Last week was all about the main characters – the detective, the villain, the side-kick and of course the victim(s).
This week, I’m interested in thinking about the minor characters – or extras – in my head I see these as a kind of walk-on part, much like those in any TV show or movie. They don’t always have lines. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They might be described as ‘an elderly dog-walker’ or ‘the woman behind the shop counter’. They crop up everywhere the story goes – in shops, houses, on village greens, in museums, and at dinner parties.
But why are they there?
Extras fulfill a number of criteria and needs for the author and the reader.
they can deflect attention away from the culprit or villain.
they can provide the reader with useful clues or snippets of information.
equally, they can provide us with (less useful, sometimes) red herrings and wrong-turns.
they enrich the story so it doesn’t consist of just your four main characters, unless that’s the whole point of the story.
they can give us a sneak-peek of something that might happen in a later book if this is a series.
they act as a kind of commentator or dramatic chorus to comment on the action or criticise or laud the ‘hero’.
But life as an Extra can be tough and is often unpredictable.
Police or other people in authority (completely unaware all too often that they themselves are Extras, can bully them or wrongfully arrest an Extra and accuse them of terrible things they haven’t done.
You need a huge range of skills as you may be called upon to perform almost any task from forensic assistant to chambermaid.
As an Extra, you might be completely overlooked by the reader who doesn’t even notice you, let alone what a magnificent job you do pretending to be an elderly dog-walker when you’re really a young woman in her twenties on her way to college and you don’t even like dogs.
Alice was at the party with two friends. Who were they? No one knows.
And they never remember your name, which is why you have to have a description attached: Miss Jones, the games mistress at school where victim used to teach. You might even find yourself very near the bottom of a long list of characters, a list designed to help readers remember all the people in the book they’ve met but don’t remember.
No one asks your opinion. ‘Tell us, Poirot,’ they cry, at the end of the book. ‘Who did this dastardly deed? and why?’ I mean, all the Extras probably know this information too, don’t they. But no one ever asks them. They just come in with the tea tray and leave without anyone noticing.
Likewise, no one ever asks an Extra if they’re okay and how they feel about being shut up in a big country house with loads of stairs, and a murderer roaming about bumping people off willy-nilly.
And as if all this is not enough, when the author gets bored, you might even end up as the next victim, just to ‘spice things up a bit’.
How is that fair? It’s not just a policeman’s life that’s terrible hard. Try being an Extra for one book, let alone a whole series. I’m only surprised they don’t have a union.
‘I hate being in crowd scenes,’ said the person in the red outfit. ‘So do I!’ said another person in yellow. ‘It’s so anonymous.’
My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes 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 it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. 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. It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, 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.
And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.
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. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.
And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! 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. 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 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, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.
In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters 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, or 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.
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. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.
In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.
Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.
However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.
To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.
Does Dottie grow? I believe 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. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.
After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, 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. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.
Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.