Monday, May 13, 2013

On Writing — When Secondary Characters Want More

I don’t pay attention to trends in crime writing.  I figure that by the time I’d finish writing a book in concert with what was popular when I began, the hordes of readers who appreciated the trend will have moved on to the next one.  The truth is I’m still writing private eye novels, which proves how disconnected I am to pop culture.  But I’ve read recently that one current trend is to have mysteries with characters who may play a minor role in one book take the central role in the next.  This creates a blend of the series approach to writing with that of standalones, or one-offs as some call them.  The benefit for the reader and writer is continuing to visit old friends, while also infusing a large measure of freshness. Not a bad idea.  And while it is not a new approach, it is heartening that we’re looking at structure and technique rather than something more ephemeral, such as introducing angels or vampires.

Louise Penny. It takes a village.
I’ve not done that exactly.  But I’ve had secondary characters steal the limelight from the intended principals.  For example, I’ve had a number of readers suggest that if something should ever happen to aging private eye Deets Shanahan, protagonist of 10 of my novels, his girlfriend, Maureen, could take over all the private investigating and all novels after the old man’s demise.  In fact, some readers went further.  They suggested I take Shanahan out next time around, leaving Maureen to find out who did it.  I’m glad they like her, but her rapid ascension wasn’t anticipated. And I have a soft spot for the septuagenarian, especially as I approach the category.

This kind of pleasant surprise turned out to be true of the second series, too.  Two private investigators —highly professional Carly Paladino and street-wise Noah Lang —anchor the San Francisco mysteries. However it is clear to me that Thanh, a smart, unconventional gender-bending assistant to the firm and SFPD Homicide Inspector Vincente Gratelli, the veteran, world-weary widower are just as, if not more, popular with readers.  

Oddly enough, Thanh’s story was told in Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin.  That short novel not only preceded the Paladino and Lang books, it was the backstory for all the books in the series.  And Gratelli was a major player in my unrelated mystery Good To The Last Kiss before becoming a regular in each of the Paladino-Lang stories.   In all cases these “supporting” players made the books better. Their prior and independent appearances, I believe, provide additional depth not only to their character but to the subsequent books in which they appear. 

What am I trying to say?  That I understand the appeal of an interlocking cast. Those trend-setting or trend-following writers may be onto something when they revisit and expand the roles of minor characters, especially those who show promise.  It is a form of repertory, not of actors, in this case, but of characters. 

Secondary Character — William H. Macy is Lincoln Lawyer's P.I.
This isn’t new, of course. For example, Michael Connelly has cross-pollinated his protagonists.  Tormented cop Harry Bosch has worked cases with Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller and former FBI agent Terry McCaleb — all leading men.  However, in this case, a better example of tis particular trend might be Louise Penny who has focused on the potential contribution of a realistic, yet conveniently captive, supporting cast.  She has exploited the benefits of murder in a tiny village, where all the minor characters know each other — and there are plenty of them — and MUST reappear from book to book, climbing into or shrinking from the limelight, depending on the story. Though Penny appears to be more in tune with the current trend, Connelly has nothing to worry about.  Between the two of them, they are the bestseller list.  For good reason.  Even so I’m still pissed that Connelly whacked the Lincoln Lawyer’s P.I., a great secondary chararacter.

In the end, though, a trend is a trend.  I don’t believe one writes to a trend successfully, nor starts one intentionally.  It’s serendipity. And once established, good writers are trend resistant. For the new and struggling it’s not quite the same. One must deal with publishers and agents who are dazzled, if not outright hypnotized by the most recent fashion turn in mysteries.

In my case, would it help if I explained that I’m one-eighth Norwegian?

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