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Thursday, May 9, 2013


When I started editing my third book, Ladies of the Garden Club, I began to think maybe I had too many characters. In my first two books, I listed the characters with a few brief words identifying them at the beginning of the books. I have had positive feedback from readers that they liked that. But as I started the list for the third book, my list is much longer. The reason for this is except for the murderer and the victims many of the characters in my small town of Portage Falls are returning from the first two books. Not all, of course, but many still make an appearance.

The other day I ran into someone who had read The Blue Rose, and wanted to know if two characters she liked would be returning in Daylilies for Emily’s Garden. I had to tell her no, and then wondered if I should bring them back at least briefly in book four. People seem to get attached to certain characters. I know I do in certain series I read, and maybe even more so with my own series.

And that could be my problem. These characters become real to me, and it’s becoming harder to discard them. In Ladies of the Garden Club I’ve compounded the problem by creating a garden club that needs at least ten members. I mean I can’t have only five members, especially since it is members of the garden club who are being poisoned.  The Portage Falls Garden Club meets more often because they’re working on a big project. I can’t just have women getting together so I have men meeting mornings over breakfast and coffee at Belle’s Diner just like the men you see in every restaurant all over the world. In both the Garden Club and the men meeting for breakfast, I’m bringing back characters from the first two books, but I need new characters, too. They create new interest plus I need new suspects, not that some of the returning characters can’t be the murderer. 

In stand-alone mysteries, the author can walk away from his or her characters at the end of the book. The same would be true to some extent for a PI in a large city. The writer of a PI series would only need to keep a core group of friends or co-workers of their main character.

But I can’t as easily walk away from my characters both because they help define my small town, and because I am fond of many of them like Mayor Winifred (Fred) Partridge or Belle, the diner’s waitress. Yes, a few characters won’t return for various reasons and that’s okay, but with each new book comes brand new characters and many of those I like too much not to bring them back in following  books even if it’s only in brief appearances.

Of course, in Ladies of the Garden Club there will be three victims and the murderer so they won’t return. But again I’ve created new characters who are neither murderer nor victim that I like too much to say good-bye to. So I guess my only option when making up my List of Characters at the beginning is to ignore those who appear so briefly that no one would consider them the murderer. And anyone I leave out won’t be. It wouldn’t be fair to do otherwise.

Do you like having characters return in the series you read?

If you write a series, how do you handle all the characters that seem to accumulate?


Anonymous said...

I find this a problem, too. Some of the characters can fall by the wayside, but the temptation to keep them is strong. After all, a person continues to accumulate acquaintances throughout life, and it seems natural that a protagonist in a series should do so, too. But it can get overwhelming for the reader.

A related problem is how much backstory to include. Each book should be a stand-alone, with enought back story so everything makes sense, but the readers who follow the books get impatient with too much backstory. I can remember thinking this was a problem when I was a kid reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys!

I haven't read your second book yet, but Blue Rose is full of realistic, fully rounded characters I will miss if they never show up again!

Jim Jackson said...

I’ve had several people ask whether this character or that from BAD POLICY will appear in CABIN FEVER, so I appreciate your problem. While I have a plenitude of named characters, only a few have a sufficiently significant role that would allow them to be considered for repeat performances.

I agree that cozy series are more likely to generate the issue of too many recurring characters since the idea is often to make the entire town (houseful of guests or whatever) suspects and then eliminate them one at a time.

With my suspense novels, only a few characters are suspects-the rest of the characters play other supporting roles. When/if they show up in a future novel, those who have read earlier ones will hopefully get a little charge of recognition. However, I want to make sure new readers do not feel like they are on the outside looking in.

Have you tried things like with a 10-person meeting, naming five who have roles and having the narrator think that the other five could as well be dust motes for all the help they’ve been in planning (or some such)? The purpose to fill out the necessary bodies around the table, but not name everyone.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Good morning, KM. You're up early, but then you're back at work after a busy weekend at Malice. I enjoyed having you as my roommate.

I agree with you on that being a problem for new readers. I'm hoping in book two - Daylilies for Emily's Garden - it can be a stand-alone with new readers. I'm more worried about book three. I'm guessing writers like Katherine Hall Page and other prolific writers just let most of their characters disappear like many of our own earlier friends or acquaintances seem to do.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim I can see you're an early riser, too. I enjoyed meeting you and Jan in person. She's a sweetie.

I did that to a certain extent in my third book still in first draft. The ladies are very briefly introduced, but most aren't seen again and the morning diner men are a little more detailed, but the ones not important are never a suspect and only make very brief appearances.

E. B. Davis said...

Gloria--do you use all ten members of the garden club in the plot?

Look at how Jenn McKinlay utilizes her book group in her Library Lover's Mysteries (Berkley). There are many members of the book group and the library board of directors, but what Jenn does is talk about the group in general terms, and then she picks out specific members (in the MC head librarian's POV) and brings them into the story.

For example, your MC could see the ten heads nodding at a speaker the group is listening to, and then pick out the one with the daisy covered hat, describing her and bringing her into the story. Those that don't pertain to the plot can fade into the group activities.

I think what you need to do is identify those recurring secondary characters from those who play a one-off role in particular books and from those who are tertiary and who fill in scenes. That later group usually don't have speaking lines.

Yes- I love recurring characters if the author has brought them to life enough for me to identify. Hope this helps as I've yet to establish a series so I'm talking from a reader's POV.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, the simple answer is to kill them off book by book. :-)

No, it is an issue--how to keep the cast of characters from becoming too unwieldy. I try to write each of my Skeet Bannion books as if it were a standalone with only the backstory that would be necessary for that. Some characters aren't seen much, if at all, in some books, but play larger roles in others.

Gloria Alden said...

E.B. three of the members do become victims. The Ladies of the Garden Club are being poisoned. So that works for Linda's suggestion. One is a secondary character, who will always be there and plays a major role in book four. Actually, all are important, except for one and she's so mousy nothing much needs to be said about her. Her name is Adele Bland. Does that say something about her? She only appears twice and isn't a memorable person.

I can't wait to get your second book, Linda, although I'm almost buried in the books I bought at Malice. I really have a serious addiction buying books and plants.

Shari Randall said...

Now that I have heard the name "Adele Bland" I am fascinated by her. What a perfect name - Maybe in your next mystery she'll disappear and the Garden Club will discover that there was more to Adele than they knew.

I read some mysteries for the supporting characters - Grandma Mazur in the Stephanie Plum books comes to mind, as does Melrose Plant in the Richard Jury books by Martha Grimes. I am discovering in my WIP that some supporting characters just demand more time on the page - due to personality or role in the story.

Norma Huss said...

I'm just now writing the second in my first series (I have one book each in two series), so I'm just getting into this problem. I'm bringing back my amateur sleuth's sister and two others. The original concerned an office full of victims and suspects plus a bunch of street people. But since I've sent my protagonist to a reenactment instead of a temp job in an office, she has nothing to do with that office any more. However, I am giving a character from my other series a bit part - so far, at least. (She is an aggressive reporter, and it's logical that she try to step away from the village to try for exposure in the city.) Of course, this may all change. Or, it may just add to the confusion. Who knows?

Good subject for authors, and readers to mull over!

Gloria Alden said...

Shari, a very minor character in the first two books, I'm not sure now if she even made an appearance in book two, disappears mysteriously in book three so she becomes rather interesting. I like Grandma Mazur and Melrose Plant, too. You're right, Shari, some minor characters demand a little more time.

Norma, I would find it difficult to write two series. If I had to keep track of characters in two different series, I'd be even more confused than I am now. :-)

carla said...

I think it's important to keep characters and allow them to recur, but we must not let them be static. If they come back, they should change/evolve/etc, the way real people do. That's what makes them engaging.

Gloria Alden said...

Very good point, Carla. I agree with you on that, and I need to keep that in mind, although I don't know how to do that with the postmistress. She's a nosy gossip, and I don't like her well enough to give her more than the occasional very minor spot. I have plans for a number of other characters who I want to take more important roles. In my second book, Daylilies for Emily's Garden, one character does something very out of character. In the 4th book, I'm going to have her tell her story of what she did to Catherine, my protag, in bits and pieces throughout the book.

Marilynn Larew said...

I think recurring characters give the reader a sense of family. When you give a character a habit, you're readers age going to say, "She's going to forget to lock the door again" or he's going to trip over thay rug again.

We get to know them and like or dislike them as much as the other characters do.

Marilynn Larew said...

Proofread better. Blush