Saturday, May 22, 2021

Do You Believe It By Kait Carson

Fiction writers in general and mystery writers in particular ask their readers to suspend disbelief and enter into the story world of their characters. Why mystery writers in particular? Well, unless you’re writing true crime, chances are those body drops are unlikely to happen in the real world. Craig Johnson, who writes the Longmire series, has confessed that he sets every other book away from fictional Absaroka County because, ‘what are the odds that in the least populated county in the least populated state’, the sheriff is tripping over enough bodies to populate a long-running series?[1]


Cozy and traditional mystery writers face the same dilemma. At least Longmire is a sheriff. His job is to trip over bodies. But what about your average pastry chef, restauranteur, or librarian? There’s not much chance realistically they will cross paths with the deceased on a regular basis, much less successfully pursue the killer without the help of the police. What’s a writer to do? Make a pact with the reader, of course. If the reader will suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the premise, the writer will deliver a fun and suspenseful story within the parameters of an altered reality. Everyone benefits.


This is a double-edged sword when the writer is successfully writing a long-term series. Authors solve it differently. Readers expect body drops in mysteries and kindly overlook the death toll in small towns. Although it’s uncertain if they would consider moving to say, Cabot Cove, ME, where newcomers have a better than even chance of ending up dead. Amateur sleuths give readers an opportunity to exercise their own powers of observation, deduction, and induction. What should be unbelievable, in the hands of a skilled writer who deftly plants clues, becomes logical and believable as the reader and the sleuth partner throughout the book.


Character lifespan is the second, sharp side of a long-running successful series. People age. Protagonist’s age. Sue Grafton handled this by having her character, Kinsey Millhone age by weeks rather than years. Over the course of 25 books, Kinsey aged very little. This required the author to dial back technology, but it worked because it was true to the story. Tie something in your character’s life to a date certain event, and, if you are lucky enough to find success, you may have created a problem.


P.D. James aged Adam Dalgleish realistically. He advanced in his profession and in his external wealth trappings on pace with the span of years the books cover. Other novelists, whom I will not name here were not so prescient. One introduced a character with memories that began in WWII during the blitz. Based on the storyline, he would be 85 now. A bit long in the tooth for his job. Likewise, another character is identified by service in Viet Nam. Those of us old enough to have been around during that war recognize by the battle dates that the character would be 77 in story years. What are the odds this character is continuing to believably put himself in the path of speeding bullets?

What’s the solution? Frankly, I hope I have the problem someday. As I currently don’t, perhaps I can hazard two suggestions as a reader. First and always, write well enough that readers want to participate in the story and suspend disbelief. Second, hedge your bets. Be nebulous. Don’t tie characters to a specific, easily datable, timeline. That way they can grow in story time and not require any suspension of disbelief.


Readers, do you mentally age characters based on events in the books?

Writers, how do you handle character aging?

[1] Conversation with Craig Johnson in Depth of Winter – statement paraphrased for brevity.


Jim Jackson said...

As a reader I don't really care which approach an author takes, although by the time Sue Grafton got to her 25th, she was getting close to writing historicals.

I've aged Seamus McCree and his family to reflect the passage of time. In a recent book his son, paddy, realized Seamus is slowing down a little. The biggest character changes occur in Megan, Seamus's granddaughter, who has gone from in vitro to six.

Readers have told me they enjoy watching the entire family, and I started Seamus off young enough that he still has some years left in him. I'll be happily surprised if I have to worry about him getting too old.

Kait said...

Well, I for one hope that Seamus is around to his dotage. I enjoy following with McCree family!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I slowly age my MC through her high school age children. And I try to alternate between victims who are strangers or brought to town against their will with residents or past residents. Lots of options. The dogs are ageless.

KM Rockwood said...

While I do appreciate characters who age and develop, I also enjoy the comfort of characters who remain stable, like Agatha Raisin or Miss Marple.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

I think it is a balance. To me, everyone can't die within the same day, so there has to be some time passage. The same holds true for character evolution. That said, I think there has to be some compression. Consequently, I like authors who keep seasonal or within months if it is a series, but who keep the character's growth real. In my own writing, I've referenced a two year passage of time in Sarah Blair's life during the first four books of the series (one year is technically before the books start), but to keep the character from aging too quickly, for example, there is only a day that passes between where Three Treats Too Many ended and Four Cuts Too Many, which releases this week, begins.

Kait said...

@ Margaret - Love that the dogs are ageless! That is the perfect solution. Aging a character through school age children is a wonderful way to handle the problem.

@KM - Agatha and Miss Marple truly set the standard. And in these days of how to handle the pandemic provide the perfect solution.

@Debra - Looking forward to Four Cuts Too Many! Authors who keep seasonal calendars do seem to have an advantage on the aging question. Readers get so caught up in the events of the season that the year doesn't seem to matter. Food for thought there. Question for you - when you were writing Three Treats had you already intended the timeline for Four Cuts?

Susan said...

Great summary of a number of sticky questions writers face. I was lucky enough to start my mysteries well before the pandemic hit. They only move forward by seasons.

Kait said...

It's interesting how well seasonal movement works to keep a story moving but character age a bit vague. As a reader, I like thinking that the next book will be in the autumn, or winter, etc.