A very interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig got me thinking about how much information readers really want about characters. Elizabeth made the point that authors can use several strategies to make characters distinctive, so that readers can tell them apart. She's right. She's also right that readers want to be able to distinguish the various characters. Otherwise, the story gets far too confusing and the characters can be so "flat they can slide under doors" (I wish I'd come up with that one. Thanks, Eeleenlee , for this expression). The question is: how much information should authors give, especially about minor characters? It's a much easier question when it comes to major characters; readers want backstory. They want to really know those characters. But minor characters are trickier; too much information is annoying, un-necessary and distracting. Too little information and the characters become "cardboard cut-outs." I don't know that there is one right answer. I do know that it's an important consideration.
Agatha Christie created several "regular" minor characters and made them distinct without overburdening her novels with backstory. For example, Hercule Poirot's ultra-efficient secretary Miss Lemon is a distinctive character. We know a few things about her. For instance, she's developing a new filing system that she wants to patent and that's what she focuses on during her spare time. She's frighteningly organised and efficient and is fiercely protective of her employer's time. We also learn in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) that she has a sister. Those character traits help the reader to form a mental image of Miss Lemon, and that in turn, helps draw the reader into the stories more. And yet, we don't learn a lot of backstory about Miss Lemon. We don't learn, really, where she grew up, what her family was like or where she lives. There aren't scenes in which we follow Miss Lemon from home to work, or to the shops on her time off. Christie keeps the focus on the plot in the novels that include Miss Lemon.
We could say the same thing about another minor Christie "regular," Mr. Goby. Mr. Goby's specialty is getting information, and he's got a large network of people who help him gather it. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, he's described as
"…a small elderly man, shabbily dressed…."
Of course, that description could fit a number of people, and Mr. Goby likes it that way; he likes to remain inconspicuous. And yet, he's distinctive, too. For instance, he has a habit of never looking at the person to whom he's speaking. He addresses his comments instead to radiators, desks, chairs, doors and other furniture. Although Mr. Goby is distinctive, we don't learn much about him. We don't know where he lives or where he's from or any of the circumstances of his personal life. Christie doesn't overburden the stories in which Goby appears with a lot of backstory about him; and yet, he's unique.
One of the "regular" minor characters in Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee novels is Chee's uncle Frank Sam Nakai. He's the brother of Chee's mother, and is a practicing yata'ali, or Navajo singer/healer. He's a distinctive character in that way. He's also distinctive in the wisdom that he offers and the way in which he and Chee interact. And yet, the novels in which he appears don't give us much backstory about him. In a few novels, Chee visits his uncle, so we do get to see where and how he lives. However, we don't know much about his life, the stories aren't told from his point of view, and Hillerman doesn't overburden the novels with information about him.
Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who… series is a cosy series, so there are several minor characters who play "regular" parts in the stories. One of them is Gary Pratt, owner of the Black Bear Café, a popular local haunt. Pratt frequently overhears useful gossip and, as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, he's also privy to a lot of "official" information, too. He's got some unique traits that set him apart. For one thing, he's got shaggy hair and a beard that make him resemble the large stuffed bear that stands outside the café. He also enjoys dog-sledding, and in a few of the novels, we learn other bits and pieces about him. He's a unique character. But the novels don't really focus on Pratt, nor do they give pages of backstory about him. Rather, the information we do learn about him comes out as it's relevant to the story.
And then there's Signorina Elettra Zorzi, assistant to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta in Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series. She's got quite a distinctive personality with unique traits. She's a computer expert who can find out just about anything online. She's also "plugged in" to all of the many informal channels for getting things done, so what she can't find out online, she can find out through her connections. She's got other personality traits, too; she's an environmentalist, an efficient manager and can be very diplomatic when it suits her purpose, although everyone in the questura knows how much informal power she wields. Signorina Elettra is a distinctive character whom one could imagine recognising. And yet, she's not the main focus in the series. In the vast majority of the novels, we don't learn a lot about where she lives, what her life is like outside of work, or the inevitable ups and downs of life that happen to her. And when she does mention something such as a date she's been on or a personal conversation, it's always related to the main plot of the novel.
In Riley Adams' (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious, we meet The Graces, a group of volunteers at Graceland, Elvis Presley's Memphis home and an international tourist attraction. They're regulars at Aunt Pat's Barbecue, a restaurant that's been owned by the Taylor family for years. When food scout Rebecca Adrian chooses Aunt Pat's as a finalist for the title of Best Barbecue in Memphis, all of the regulars, including the Graces, are excited. Then, Adrian is poisoned not many hours after her visit to the restaurant. There are plenty of suspects, including some of current owner Lulu Taylor's friends and family members, since Adrian was malicious, self-interested and arrogant. Gossip even starts that Aunt Pat's serves poisoned food. So Lulu determines to restore her restaurant's reputation and clear the names of her friends. As Lulu works to find out who really killed Rebecca Adrian, we get to know the Graces a little better. Each of them, Cherry, Flo and Peggy Sue, is distinctive. They dress differently, act differently and we learn unique things about each of them (I don't want to spoil anyone's fun so… no details). It's not hard to tell them apart. And yet, the focus in this novel remains on the mystery and the central plot. Adams doesn't give pages of backstory on each of the Graces, and we don't see what they do when it's not relevant to the story.
It's always a bit tricky to give the right amount of information, especially about minor characters, whether or not they're "regulars." And every writer has a different way of figuring this one out. What do you think? How much information do you like? If you're a writer, how do you balance giving enough information without overburdening readers?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Goo Goo Dolls song.