Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Walk-Ons" and Bit Players

Well-written mystery novels keep the reader focused on the mystery or crime that’s at the core of the story. Just about everything in the novel (setting, dialogue, and the like) is related to the main plot, so that the reader can follow the action and the plot line. However, if a story is too “bare,” it can be too easy for the reader to solve the mystery. When that happens, the reader can be left unsatisfied, because the mystery wasn’t challenging enough. The other problem with “bare” novels is that they aren’t engaging. There’s simply not enough detail in the story to bring the reader into it. One of the most interesting (and sometimes challenging) ways that mystery novels are “fleshed out” is through minor characters – the “bit players” of mystery novels. Minor characters come in all shapes and sizes, and in a well-written mystery, they suit the context. They are a natural part of the storyscape, and the reader feels as though they belong there.

Mystery authors use minor characters for several different purposes. One of them is to give the reader a sense of time and place. In Vince Flynn’s Term Limits, for instance, we meet Susan Chambers, secretary/assistant to Washington Congressman Tim O’Rourke. Chambers doesn’t play a major role in this novel of international political intrigue. She doesn’t hold a vital clue, engage in espionage, or end up being a murderer. She does, however, place the reader firmly in the busy office of a Washington, D.C. politician. Her character serves the purpose of creating context.

Another useful purpose of minor characters is to give insight into the major characters. The more we know about them, the more real they seem. The character of Doris Sanders serves this purpose in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which Hercule Poirot solves the murder of John Christow, a successful doctor. Doris Sanders is a part-time model who’s hired by Henrietta Savernake, a sculptor who is Christow’s mistress and a suspect in his murder. Sanders doesn’t provide vital information or play a role in the murder. She’s not even present at the country home where the murder occurs. Instead, she provides a window into the way Henrietta feels about her work, and the role it plays in her life. Madame Alfrege plays a similar role in that novel. She’s the owner of a dress shop where Midge Hardcastle, a cousin of Henrietta Savernake, has a job. Unlike her well-to-do relatives, Midge has to work for a living, and Madame Alfrege’s rude, abrasive and overbearing personality gives us insight into Midge’s character and helps explain her resentment at the easy lifestyle that her “well-born” relatives take for granted.

Minor characters can also heighten the tension and suspense in a novel. Several minor characters serve that purpose in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. One of them is André Vernet, President of the Paris branch of the Depository Bank of Zurich. We meet Vernet when Robert Langdon, Harvard history professor and the protagonist of the novel, follows a coded clue to the bank. Hot on his trail are the French police, who suspect him and his companion, Sophie Neveu, of murdering Louvre curator Jacques Saunière. Vernet doesn’t know what the clue means, and he doesn’t provide Langdon the solution to the mystery of the Holy Grail. However, he does rescue Langdon and his companion, Sophie Neveu, from the French police. He doesn’t want unfavorable attention attracted to his bank, and, as it turns out, he was a friend of Saunière, so he decides to spirit Langdon and Neveu out of the bank. His desperation to get rid of them adds a great deal of suspense to the novel. So does his tense encounter with the French police while he’s driving them away, hidden in the back of an armored bank truck. He lies to the police about having seen them and bluffs the police into leaving the truck alone. In Vernet’s case, the minor character plays the role of moving the action along and keeping the reader interested in what’s happening.

Some authors use minor characters to provide clues. Agatha Christie does this quite frequently in her novels. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot is on the trail of the killer of Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender who was poisoned while en route from Paris to London. Poirot’s investigation leads him to the offices of Universal Airlines, where he meets Jules Perrot, the office manager. Through Perrot, Poirot finds out that someone deliberately arranged for Madame Giselle to take that particular flight – an important clue to the mystery.

I use minor characters for the same purpose in my Joel Williams mysteries. For instance, in B-Very Flat, Williams helps to solve the murder of Serena Brinkman, a violin virtuosa who dies of anaphylactic shock on the day of an important music competition. One of the minor characters in that story is Ben Lessner, a fellow competitor. We don’t learn a lot about Lessner, and he’s not a suspect in the murder. However, he gives the police a clue about how the murder might have been committed.

Robin Cook has another, very interesting, way of using minor characters to provide clues in his plots. Cook’s novels oven center around a set of unexplained deaths. The sleuth (a member of one of the medical professions) notices these deaths and finds the key that links them. With this as his most frequent scenario, Cook often introduces readers to the set of minor characters whose deaths will form the basis of his sleuth’s investigation. For instance, in Fatal Cure, David and Angela Wilson have accepted jobs at a hospital in rural Vermont. One of David Wilson’s patients is Marjorie Kleber, who’s had breast cancer. We don’t learn a lot about Kleber, except that she’s a middle-aged married schoolteacher. She isn’t a central character in the novel. However, as she worsens and then, unexpectedly dies, her death and autopsy provide David Wilson with important clues that he and Angela use to solve the mystery of a series of other unexplained deaths at the hospital.

Of course, minor characters can also be the source of “red herrings.” Agatha Christie does this in several of her novels (of course, she was renowned for her skill at deceiving the reader). For example, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), Hercule Poirot is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a stranger in Warmsley Vale, a small country town. Several members of the Cloade family, who live in and around Warmsley Vale, turn out to have a strong motive for the mysterious visitor’s death. As Poirot looks into the matter, he gets information from several minor characters, including the owner of a local inn, an irascible and xenophobic long-time resident of the inn and the doorman of a luxurious apartment building. Some of the information turns out to be useful to the case; some clues are “red herrings.” What’s interesting about the way that Christie weaves the “red herrings” in is that some of them come from the same minor characters that also provide useful clues.

Minor characters, the “bit players” of mysteries can add a lot of depth, texture, and sometimes clues to the story. They also provide helpful insights into the major characters. But, like any other aspect of a mystery, they are most effective when they are relevant to the story, occur naturally and offer important details or information.

What do you think about minor characters? Do you enjoy “meeting” them? Do you find them distracting?


  1. A very astute analysis, Margot. I'm continually amazed at how well-read in mysteries you are! I forget stuff I read by the next day.

  2. Alan - Thanks for the kind words : ). I appreciate them very much. However, I shouldn't take credit where it's not due; I often have to go back and look up parts of novels to be sure I haven't gotten things wrong. At my age, I no longer trust my memory ; ).

  3. Minor Characters = depth, texture, clues: you are so right. and, i think, this applies to many genres, not just the mystery field!

  4. Alex - That's a well-taken point. Novels in any genre are just better when the minor characters provide some texture, some interest, some insight, etc..

  5. What else is there to say. You said it all, and what Alex added was what I would have said. Good post.

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth : ). It's always fun to take a look at the denizens of good stories. In a well-written story, all the characters are there for a reason and have roles to play.

  7. I suspect that sometimes a minor character is so successful that the author brings them back in sequels in a a more major role. I am thinking of Catarella, who provides both humour and texture, in the Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri. I agree with Alan that I also forget plots and characters the next day or get them mixed up.

  8. Uriah - You have a very well-taken point. I think several authors do that. Lilian Jackson Brown, for instance, has brought back more than one minor character in her Cat Who...series. Some have even later played more important roles in later novels.

  9. Minor characters play much bigger roles than we give them credit for! I like the thought that the reader might discount a clue because it comes from a minor character who doesn't seem to be a big part in the story.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Elizabeth - I agree completely. That's one of the things I like best about writers like Caroline Graham and of course, Agatha Christie. They use minor characters very artfully and the reader has to stay alert to what everyone says and does.

  11. Minor characters are what can give a book it's flash and colour. Since they're around for a relatively short period they can be incredibly eccentric or clumsy or any number of things which would be irritating beyond measure in a main character. They can see things and be places the main character can't be or wasn't. I wouldn't want to write a book inundated with these creatures, but they certainly can add spice and flavor.


  12. Elspeth - You make a very apt comparison between minor characters and spice. Like exactly the right spicing, minor characters add "pizzazz" to a good novel. However, just like food can be overspiced, minor characters can also be "overdone." That's why it's so important to keep focused on the central plot of the story. Anything that adds to that plot can be powerful. Anything that takes away from it lessens the effect and weakens the story.