Writing the Whole Person by Susan Oleksiw

Writers agonize over developing a character that will be considered well rounded and fully realized. We take workshops, read how-to books by some of our favorite crime writers, and write out short or lengthy bios of our protagonists, including a backstory that will elicit sympathy and the reader’s allegiance. I’ve done all of these things, but if this is all I’ve done, the character will fall flat in my view. Only recently have I figured out why this is so.

In writing a series with a recurring protagonist and back-up characters, I had the luxury of a story arc that covered several books, giving me as well as the reader several experiences in which to get to know my lead. Since these were traditional mysteries, I had ample opportunity to explore how she or he lived outside of a particular murder investigation. She had a job and other responsibilities, or a family or close friend or lover. The reader followed her into various corners of her life that promised a little bit of personal history as well as clues to the murder and its perpetrator. Without even thinking about it, I was giving the reader the one crucial element that was missing from the courses I took and the books I read.

This has become more and more clear to me since I’ve started writing a stand-alone mystery. In certain ways, this is a very different writing challenge from the series mystery, and I saw at once as I read more in that genre what was missing. In a traditional mystery the reader gets to know the protagonist in her chosen setting among friends and neighbors, and this device requires the heroine to reveal more of her ordinary self. How does she get along with her friends? What makes her laugh? How does she feel about various aspects of life deep down? In most stand-alones, we meet the main characters one or two pages away from a crisis, and never get to know them in moments of lightheartedness, the way we are when we’re not facing a threat to our lives or those we love.

In his book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder points out that a character can get away with any vile behavior if at the outset he does something the audience will cheer–he saves a cat or a dog or a child. You get the idea. And the idea works. But I’m talking about something more.

In any novel I want to discover the whole person, who she is when she’s happy as well as when she’s frightened and confused and feeing overwhelmed. The challenge is balancing all facets of a single personality in a story of suspense and murder, but in the end I want to come away with a feeling of having lived with a real person, enjoyed her sense of humor, felt the darkness she struggled against, understood her choices, and sympathized with her frailties.

Perhaps I’m especially sensitive to this absence in most suspense characters because I have a wry sense of humor that tends to show up all the time, whatever the circumstances. I admire men and women who can step back from danger and ease the fear and pain with a joke or flash of kindness, some sense of keeping a larger perspective. I seek the same level of character development in the stories I read and write, and I admire any writer who gets it on the page for me to enjoy.

 

Transitions

Right now I’m making the transition from writing a series to writing a stand-alone. There are similarities between the two forms, of course. Setting is still all important, for example. We need to know where the story takes place and how this affects the characters. Is the story set in a city? If yes, then at least some characters will travel by public transportation–the subway or bus or zip car or Uber/Lyft or bicycle. If the setting is a small town or even a farm community, the bus will be a once a day opportunity, and most people will drive everywhere.

The variety of characters around the protagonist will remain important, but here some less obvious differences start to emerge. In any mystery the reader expects a diversity in age, occupation, gender, and race. That’s a given. The list of characters should reflect the makeup of the setting in all its variety and richness. Even in the most traditional stories from the Golden Age, the characters, especially the suspects, had a sense of individuality and diversity within the given bounds of the time. The Anita Ray series is set in a tourist resort in South India, which gives me unlimited possibilities for characters.

In a mystery novel that is part of a series, the suspects orbited around the protagonist and her or his circle of friends and relatives, the recurring personae of the series. We enjoy seeing some of our favorite fictional friends fall in and out of trouble, knowing that in the end, the real culprit will be found out. Our literary friends, of course, will be fine. I was glad of this because I grew very fond of some of Felicity O’Brien’s relatives in Below the Tree Line, my newest series.

In a stand-alone, every single character is equally suspect. There is no protected circle of recurring characters, and there is no single character who cannot be the culprit, not even the narrator in a first person tale. Perhaps I should say, especially not the protagonist now that there are so many stories with unreliable narrators.

As I tackle my first stand-alone, writing every character as though he or she is the villain changes some fundamental aspects of the story. The narrator in a first person story really has no one she can rely on as a trustworthy confidante. We have to suspect everyone. Never can we say, Oh, that’s just Aunt Ida. She’s always like that, right from Book One. In a stand-alone, Aunt Ida, as flaky as she may be, remains a viable candidate for the role of murderer. If the narrator is confiding in her about her suspicions, Aunt Ida could be gathering information that will enable her to foist the guilt onto someone else. Or Aunt Ida could be discerning an important detail that would allow her to blackmail the real villain. Or the narrator could be planting ideas in Aunt Ida’s mind to propel her to act in a certain way. Poor Aunt Ida. She’s landed in the wrong script, and there’s no getting out of it.

The other change that seems most notable to me should be obvious in the preceding paragraph. No matter how dire the situation, I tend to see things through a particular lens, and it shows up in my wry humor. Aunt Ida can’t become a comedic character that undermines the tension of the story.

I’m working on all of this, and when I finally finish this ms I hope I’ll have mastered what is for me partly a new form. Stay tuned as we used to say. More to come.

A Day of Beginnings by Susan Oleksiw

This month seems to be a time of new beginnings for me and for Ladies of Mystery, with four new writers joining the blog. I already know several of my colleagues from their books and blogs, and I’m delighted to find myself now writing among them.

Unlike many mystery writers, I came to crime fiction relatively late, in graduate school. Someone gave me a copy of They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie, and in the first few pages I knew this was the writer for me. I had the book in hand when I went to see my professor, and he saw it and smiled. “I read those when I was trying to improve my English,” he said. He grew up speaking Dutch and French, studied German, and then learned English. So, instead of talking about my research, that day we talked about Agatha Christie.

Christie’s influence, along with that of a number of other British writers, is obvious in my first series, the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva. After reading lots of British and American mysteries, I knew not only what I wanted to write but what I didn’t want to write. I did not want my detective, in this case a police chief in a small town, to be depressed, an alcoholic, divorced, alienated from his birth family or children, a broken-down guy trying to get it together. (I said this once in a conference, and hilarity and applause ensued.) Joe is single but working on it in the first three books, calls his parents every week, and gets along with his siblings. He speaks Portuguese and is easy going except where crime is concerned. He knows what it takes to manage life in a small town.

In the Anita Ray series I got to indulge my love of India–palm trees, sunshine, the ocean, spicy food, lots of color everywhere. Anita is a young Indian-American photographer living at her aunt’s tourist hotel, resistant to marriage and a magnet for murder, to the despair of her Auntie Meena. When a reader picks up one of these books, I want her to smell the spices, feel the heat and the cooling breeze, and spot the moon through the palm leaves at night.

My third series features Felicity O’Brien, farmer and healer, who finds a body on her land while an out of town buyer is offering outrageous sums for what she considers substandard farm land. This story was fun to write for very different reasons. I got to explore a life I lived briefly but relived for years while listening to my parents and older brothers reminisce about our long-gone farm.

You can probably tell that setting is all important to me, and it’s the first element I think of when sitting down to write. Instead of a book in one of the series, right now I’m working on a stand-alone that covers some of the issues I explore in my earlier novels–the clash between old and new, the shock of unexpected change and how people cope with it. I plan to share some of these thoughts and others on writing issues here on Ladies of Mystery.

But today, while new readers are getting to know me, I’ll be driving most of the day to pick up our new dog, a rescue lab waiting for us in Brattleboro, Vermont. No doubt this pooch will play a role in a story to come. So, yes, today is a day of new beginnings, and I have lots to be excited about. Next month I’ll have photos of our new dog and more.