Sunday, August 23, 2009

Puppet-Master or Puppet? ; )


One of the essentials of a good novel, whether it's a mystery or another kind of novel, is the set of characters. We learn from the time we're children that characters, like plots and setting, are one element of a story, and we learn to identify who the main characters are. But for a writer, characters become much more than that. In a way, they take on a life of their own. They aren't real, of course, but we authors spend so much time working with our characters, getting to know them, and writing about them that they almost become real. When the novel is written, we miss them in a way. At least I do.

I've just finished my novel B-Very Flat. It's almost ready to send to the publisher, and when it's been sent, the characters I've created for the novel will really no longer be mine. They'll be part of a book. They'll have their own lives, separate from the lives I've given them. It's an interesting reality about writing that the characters we authors create become their own people. In a way, that can make them immortal.

In the mystery genre, some of the most famous characters were recurring characters in mystery series. That's one reason I like series so much; the characters change and develop, and they begin to seem like people you know - people you might recognize and speak to if you saw them on the street. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot was surrounded by memorable characters; his secretary, Miss Lemon; his valet, George; and of course, Chief Inspector Japp are just a few of them. Edith Pargiter (Ellis Peters)'s Cadfael shared Shrewsbury Abbey with Brother Oswin and Brother Paul, among others. They and Hugh Beringar became real through the Cadfael novels. We got to know them.

The same thing happens in Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis series. We get to know Melanie's first husband, Bob, her second husband, Sam and her son, Davey. We also meet Faith, Eve, Tar, and the other Standard Poodles who share Melanie's life. Perhaps most memorable in the Melanie Travis series is her Aunt Peg, whose lively (if sometimes tart) personality is almost an important part of the series as any of the murders is. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series wouldn't be the same without the well-developed characters of Stephanie Plum's mother, her Grandma Mazur, her cousin Vinnie Plum, Detective Joe Morelli and of course, Rex the hamster and Bob the Golden Retriever. The regular characters in Lilian Jackson Brown's Cat Who.... series are some of my favorites. There are so many of them that they'd take up too much room here. But a few are Jim Qwuilleran's newspaper editor Arch Riker and his wife, Mildred, photographer John "Bushy" Bushland, Managing Editor Junior Goodwinter, his cousin (and Mayor of Pickax), Amanda Goodwinter and of course librarian and later bookstore manager Polly Duncan, for most of the series, the main woman in Qwilleran's life.

As I think about my own series, the Joel Williams series, I have to say that I'm enjoying getting to know and share the characters. I like Williams' wife, Assistant District Attorney Laura Williams. She's a source of solid support to Joel and has plenty of personality in her own right. I also like Bert Schneider, who's captain of the local police precinct. Williams has several colleagues at Tilton University, where he teaches Criminal Justice, whom I like, too. There's Tanya James, who used to be a forensics specialist; Benjamin Levy, who speclizes in crinimal psychology and profiling, and Shirley Mizzello, who used to be a judge. Each of them has a role to play in the series. They've become real people, in a sense. I've joked before that as an author, I get to be the puppet-master. Sometimes I wonder, though: who's really the puppet? ; )

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