Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Secondary Characters: In First Place

By Sandra Parshall

The protagonist occupies center stage in a mystery novel, but a book also needs a cast of vivid supporting players. Whether secondary characters are funny or sad, irritating or lovable (or both at the same time), they claim their own special place in the writer’s heart.

Recently I asked several authors – who all happen to be Goddesses, former Sisters in Crime presidents – the question:

Of the many secondary characters you’ve created, which have you most enjoyed writing about?

Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski series:

“My regular secondary characters are all interesting and important to me. Lotty Herschel, the doctor who is V.I.’s important friend, critic and mentor, is the one whose life I’ve thought about most; she has her own story told in flashback chapters in my novel Total Recall, and those six chapters are among the writing of my own in which I’ve invested the most work and emotion. They detail Lotty’s history as a refugee in London during WW II, and her training as a young doctor in the bitter winter right after the war. Mr. Contreras, V.I.'s downstairs neighbor, is both annoying and lovable. He got on my nerves so much that at one point I was going to kill him off, but my husband protested mightily, and jumped in front of the gun, deflecting the bullet into Mr. Contreras’s shoulder.”

Nancy Pickard, author of the Jenny Cain series, the Marie Lightfoot series and several stand-alone novels:

“In my Jenny Cain series, it’s Jenny’s old teacher, Lucille Grant, whom I brought back because readers asked for her. In the Marie Lightfoot series, it's Marie's assistant, Deb Dancer. In The Scent of Rain and Lightning, it’s Red Bosch, a plain, good man. What those three have in common is that they love their protagonist, but that doesn’t stop them from telling her the truths she needs to hear. Each is a very genuine person. Because these nice people love their ‘star,’ they make her look better simply by virtue of their relationship with her.”

Judy Clemens, author of the Stella Crown series and the Grim Reaper series:

“In Embrace the Grim Reaper, the first of the Grim Reaper books, there is a character named Loretta. She is a middle-aged African American woman with deep religious ties who works at the soup kitchen where Casey and Death spend some time. She punctuates her language with exclamations (“Thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah!”), sometimes shocking or startling the people around her. She was really fun to write because she is pretty much based on a woman I know who answers her phone by saying, “Praise the Lord!” even if you wake her up from a deep sleep and her voice isn't quite working yet. I've never known anyone else like her, and it was fun to put her into print -- even if she doesn't know I did.”

Carolyn Hart, author of the Death on Demand series:

“Emma Clyde, the very rich mystery author on my island in the Death on Demand series. She's rich because I'm not, but who knows? Someday a miracle may occur and my books, like Emma's, may sell faster than ice melts in the Sahara. And I have great fun skewering us - writers - because Emma is totally self-centered and self-absorbed. Her main focus is always The Book. Sound familiar? I am very fond of Emma.”

Margaret Maron, author of the Deborah Knott series and the Sigrid Harald series:

“I adore Judge Deborah Knott's old reprobate of a father. Kezzie Knott is one of the fast-disappearing backcountry types that I grew up loving. Yes he was a bootlegger; yes, he may have killed someone; yes, he only has a 4th-grade education, but he's loving and loyal and wily as a fox.

“From the Lt. Sigrid Harald series, I love her housemate Roman Tramegra, who keeps trying to pick Sigrid's brain for murder mystery plots and who complains because most of her cases are too dull to make interesting reading.”

What question would you love to ask your favorite writers? Send it to me at sandraparshall@yahoo.com along with a list of authors. If we use your question on the blog, we’ll give you credit.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries. The fourth book in the series, Under the Dog Star, has just been published.


Peg Nichols said...

The very day I arrived home from a trip to Europe which included Auschwitz a friend put a copy of Total Recall in my hands. Despite my jet lag I began reading right away.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think some readers continue a series not so much because they love the protagonists but because they love the secondary characters. How many read Janet Evanvich's books because they adore Grandma Mazur or Joe or Ranger?

Elizabeth said...

Sandra, that is so true. The secondary characters in the Stephanie Plum books are so great...I want to eat dinner with Stephanie's family, I'd love to drop into the bail bond office and meet Connie, I would like to go on a food run with Stephanie and Lula. I just started the Sigrid books and only read one so far. #2 is on hold TBR.

I read the Jenny Cain books quite awhile ago. I don't know why I stopped, but I remember the fun dialogue between Jenny and her daughter. I should look those books up again.

jenny milchman said...

How interesting! This reminds me of character actors preferring their parts over the lead. Sometimes even more meaty and lingering. I love many of the characters named here as well--and will have to look for the others!

Tracy said...

I definitely agree, Sandra and Elizabeth, the secondary characters in Evanovich's S. Plum series are so much fun. (I would hang out with Grandma Mazur any day!)

When I write, I love rounding out as many characters as appropriate. After all, they are "real people" inside my head and I like them to have some meat on their bones. :)

Kathleen said...

I read the first Kate Shugak book by Dana Stabenow, and fell totally within the spell of her secondary characters.
Kate, while standing alone leans on her community and relies on her eclectic assortment of family and friends. The books are so much more about community and the interaction of the peoples within this unique community.