Friday, February 11, 2011

I Just Want You to Know Who I Am*

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?

: The title of this post is the title of a Goo Goo Dolls song.


  1. If it's a 'regular' character, I think you can flesh them out to help the readers get to know them. JD Robb has added new 'regulars' as her In Death series progresses, and readers have watched them grow. Peabody, who started out with her "bowl cut hair" and her "sturdy cop shoes" has became a strong supporting character.

    As a writer, I've found that because secondary characters don't have to carry the plot, it's easy to have too much fun with them. In my Blackthorne, Inc. series, I have a recurring cast of characters, each with his own specialty, and references to their special jobs and quirks, I hope, keeps them clear and interesting for readers.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Terry - Thanks for reminding me of some of the characters who've developed as the In Death series has gone on. It's a really clear example that a character who's just minor, with just a few traits, can develop over time into someone quite a lot more important and can evolve.

    You make a really good point, too, that it's easier to have fun with minor characters since they don't carry the story. One can experiment with them and add "spice" without taking away from the story if it's done well.

  3. Thanks so much for the nice mention! And I'll agree it's a tricky balance...between giving the reader enough info to both identify and flesh out a supporting character and overloading them with details. The important thing to me is to make sure my readers know who each character is. It can be tough!

  4. Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure! You really asked an important question and brought up an important topic. I think you hit the nail on the head, too: the key is that readers know each character and can distinguish them. That's the main thing. I think the rest depends on a lot and as you say, it's a tough call.

  5. What a fabulous post! I so agree that minor characters in a good series seem to flesh themselves out as they stay around...and as a reader, a book that has well-defined characters is a true pleasure.

  6. Linda - Thank you so much :-). I know what you mean. I often stay with a book if I care about the characters, even if elements of the book are weaker. And as far as a series goes, I don't tend to stay with series that don't feature characters I like. Why go through the effort if there's no-one to care about in the series?

  7. Christie really seemed to have a knack of making something distinctive about her minor characters. Almost but just short of caricature, so they are interesting without being unbelievable.

  8. Al - You put that quite well. They are memorable in part because Christie gave them distinctive features. But she didn't take it too far so as you say, they aren't caricatures.

  9. Interesting post. I so enjoy books where there are minor characters that you learn a little about each time you visit. You've given some great examples - the Graces, Uncle Frank and Gary Pratt. Terry mentioned another good example, Peabody in JD Robb's series. We find out more about these characters each time, but never so much that they take away from the main character and storyline. They just add more flavor to the story.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thank you :-). And you make a very good point about learning a bit more about minor characters as a series goes on. Just as we know people better as we spend more time with them, we can learn a bit more about minor characters as we read more about them. Well-written minor characters add a solid layer of interest to a story, but they don't take away from the central plot. That's the key, I think.

  11. I do remember Craig's minor characters, they were memorable. I love finding one unusual quirk to remember my minor character's by. It's a learning process but I love it when authors are unique about it.

  12. Clarissa - I agree; those minor characters that Adams/Craig created are terrific in part because they're memorable. It is nice, isn't it, to find one unique thing about a character that helps in remembering him or her. And yes, when authors are creative about it, that makes it all the better :-).

  13. One of the things I like most about cozies is the sheer number of well developed minor characters. But Christie had a gift for breathing life into people without spending too much time developing them.
    Great post, and a great post that inspired it.

  14. Rayna - Wasn't Elizbeth's post wonderful (And thanks for the kind words about mine)? You put that really well, too: Christie used just a few brushstrokes but some of her characters are really alive. She never overburdened readers with too much verbiage...