Thursday, December 10, 2015

Secondary Mystery Characters Who Play Fair

It’s a mystery reader’s challenge and the name-of-the-game: Every character who populates a page could be a suspect. While the author and reader know who is and who isn’t, the reader can’t be sure. The author must play fair.

 Secondary characters main role is usually to move the story along. They serve food and drink to the sleuth, drive him or her around, are family members or associates who attend holiday parties.

 Often sketchy and written in without taxing the author’s brain, these secondary characters challenge the reader, especially in early chapters. The author also faces a dilemma. If drawn to narrow, the reader quickly dismisses the character as not a suspect. Flat, one-dimensional characters also create lifeless reading.

 The author who desires to have as many viable suspects as possible can not overlook the minor characters, especially on their stage debut. That is because, if the only three-dimensional characters are the hero/sleuth and the villain/criminal, the reader won’t have any fun in trying to decipher whodunit.

 The balancing fulcrum between reader and author must be fair play.

 Fair play in that the reader knows as much as the sleuth and there are multiple suspects.

 If the sleuth enters a supermarket, what type of individual might he find?

Example one:

The obese, heavyset white-shirted male with the store badge clipped to his black belt knelt near an aisle merchandise display.  His gray hair and facial wrinkles said he neared retirement. He chewed a yellow pencil stub as if it were a toothpick. His brown eyes were downcast and hardly brighter than his scuffed black shoes.

 Comment on Example one:

 Many writers pass off this physical description as strong characterization. Other than outward appearance, what do we know about this character. Is he a clerk, a middle-level manager, or the store owner. Was he concerned with merchandise or had he dropped something? There’s a lot we don’t know and nothing that really makes this male memorable, except the writer really wanted us to know the character carried extra weight by the needless repetition.

Example two:

The purple-shirted male with a shaven head knelt with his hob-nailed engineer boots blocking any grocery store cart that dared attempt to pass him. The red of his bulbous nose contrasted sharply with deep-set dark eyes. A red bandana tucked into his rear blue jeans pocket lay limp against his right butt.

Comment on Example two:

This exaggerated attempt to add “color” to the character spins a blurry and confusing palette. Is this person young and not know better or old and doesn’t care. Perhaps, he stopped into the store for water before he was to set out for the costume party. Who knows? These types of characters don’t ring true to the reader. It draws unneeded attention to the author. The reader. as well, might question the motives of the author, and not in a good way.

Example three:

The store clerk pushing a wheeled merchandise-laden cart hummed “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Must be new, Detective Jim thought. He hadn’t met this blue-jacketed young man before.

     “You practicing for Christmas Eve?”

     “Easter,” said the clerk. He grinned and Jim knew he wasn’t serious.

      “Where’s the eggnog?”

      “Aisle 9.”

Comment on Example three.

 What does this brief introduction tell the reader about the young man? Yes, young, but we don’t know years so the reader must actively engage his or her imagination and draw upon personal experience. May be a high school or college student working during the Christmas break. He wears what might be a common clerk uniform jacket so the reader can deduce he’s an employee. If he hums, there’s an indication of how he approaches his tasks. His response to Detective Jim indicates a sense of humor. Since he knows where the eggnog is, he’s either studied the store layout or has worked there for a sufficient time to become familiar.  If not naturally friendly, perhaps he’s sophisticated in how to hide his true feelings.


 The store clerk in the last example hasn’t been over developed. Yet, if need be, his character can reappear later. It’s the same gradual process of creating major characters.

 Examine your secondary characters. If the restaurant server is mentioned only because a plate of food must be in front of the sleuth, there is likely no reason even to give the server a name or gender. If the server is in a cowboy outfit and that is a way to identify the restaurant as a BBG joint, then by all means add this as one of the few details necessary to orient the reader.

 One last point, in real-life we often learn more about another person by the way they act and talk than by their dress. Detective Jim will likely remember the clerk’s humming rather than he wore an employee uniform. Chances are the reader will, too.

Donan Berg's latest novel is a romance entitled One Paper Heart. Read a free sample of One Paper Heart by clicking the underlined link or at your favorite online bookseller.

His recent mystery is Adolph's Gold. Read a free sample at the following link Adolph's Gold or online at your favorite bookseller.

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