Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Choose Continuing Characters

Every novelist who writes a sequel or series has to choose which characters from the first (or second or third) should have a continuing role and which should fade into history. The main character is an obvious choice for a continuing role. Can you imagine Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Series” without Kinsey Milhone? Neither can I. However, Clive Cussler managed over time to supplant his aging protagonist, Dirk Pitt, with his son, Dirk Pitt, Jr. But I digress; let’s assume your protagonist will continue to have the lead role. Who else do we keep, and why?

If the novels are cozy mysteries set in a small town or village, the author can keep everyone—until the author chooses to kill them off, that is, because the mortality rate in these places is pretty darn high. Fortunately, authors can easily replace the dead in the next volume in the series.

I don’t plot in advance; I’m a pantser. As I started writing the second in the Seamus McCree series (Bad Policy, which turned out to be the first published), I faced the question of who should get pink slips and whose contracts I should extend. Seamus’s son, Paddy, was a favorite of many readers. They enjoyed the father-son banter and occasional head-butting. I started with the premise I wanted to keep Paddy and he, of course, still had his cats, Cheech and Chong, so they got a free pass.

I wanted to write about insurance fraud, and I had introduced as a side character a man who owned an insurance agency. I killed him off. Because he was living in a town fifty miles from where Seamus lived, I had the opportunity to retain a number of local characters who readers enjoyed or would likely remember. First was Charlene—a sassy waitress. Next was her now boyfriend, Bear—a sheriff’s deputy. Charlene was perfect to fill in the local gossip, and Bear provided the local police angle. As a bonus, readers would see their relationship advance. Perfect, said the pantser.

The insurance agency had a secretary who Seamus thought of as Miss Smiles. Since her boss died early that allowed her space for a bigger role. The insurance fraud involved annuities, which allowed me to return a couple of folks from the local insurance company.

All these reflections allowed me to better understand why people like cozies: all those characters they get to know and love, or dislike, or whatever the author wants the reader to feel.

In the first manuscript I had introduced a nosy neighbor, Mrs. Keenan, and her wonderful Golden Retriever, Alice. When I needed someone to report on strange happenings while Seamus was away from home, I thought “who better than Mrs. Keenan?” I even gave Alice a larger role as an alert watchdog.

The first book introduced a love interest for Seamus, who had been divorced for many years. Abigail Hancock got a return role, but as often happens with love interests, not everything went as Seamus planned.

What I quickly discovered was that if I had a particular role to fill and I already had a character from the first book, there was no reason to create a new character as long as the first one made sense.

In the next book (Cabin Fever 3/2014) I changed locales. I cut loose all the now non-locals with small roles; those roles I needed to fill with new characters. I knew I wanted Paddy to participate in the story and sure enough found a way to involve him. The same thing happened with Abigail Hancock, the main love interest (the situation worsened—or did it?). As I wrote, I found ways to bring back a few of the previous characters for cameo roles. Readers liked that.

I just finished writing the first draft of the next in the series. I’ve developed some rules I now use.

1. Readers expect Paddy to have a significant role. Seamus would not be Seamus without Paddy. They want to see how the two of them deal with each other as father and son and as colleagues in solving problems.

2. Readers want Seamus to have a love interest—they don’t necessarily agree on who that should be.

3. A certain group of readers strongly appreciated Seamus’s mother in BAD POLICY. They were disappointed to discover the CABIN FEVER story did not lend itself to including her. However, in the edits I was able to include a closing bit to remind those people of Trudy McCree. She even gets the last word, which is what you would expect from her.

4. Don’t create a new persona when you already have someone at the ready to fill a role. People are always saying, “It’s a small world.” In my fiction, I want readers to smile when someone they’ve met before reappears. However, I must clue in new readers into the prior relationship is such a way that they feel comfortable (not a deus ex machina event) and continuing readers aren’t bored.

5. Some roles are useful to have. The gossip who knows everything that’s happening is one, but when changing locales, it’s important to find new kinds of players to fit the same role. Much better when I changed location from Chillicothe, Ohio to the Upper Peninsula Northwoods to replace Charlene, the sassy waitress, with Owen, the octogenarian woodsman, than to find another sassy waitress in the new town.

Those of you who are ahead of me in this writing game can let me know what I’ve missed. Readers, what do you like or not like about continuing side characters?

~ Jim
(A form of this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill)