This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can't Tell the Characters Without a Scorecard

Slightly edited version of a post from spring 2013

            A couple of years ago, in the early stages of writing the second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, I found myself thinking about Ellery Queen. Early Ellery Queen, to be precise.
            What drove my mind there was the experience of trying to write a book that is a contemporary American take on the classic English country-house mystery. If you’ve read Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, or any of the other practitioners, you’ll know that’s a story where a diverse group of characters are invited to a country estate for the weekend and a murder ensues, with all the guests being suspects.
            Americans in the present day don’t do that sort of thing (I mean the country-house weekend; we certainly do murders) so in my book the characters assemble at a remote fishing lodge that has a bit of a history. The challenge facing the writer is bringing in all the characters, establishing their characters, and getting the reader interested in those characters before the first corpse makes its appearance.

The Nephew or the Secretary?

            A caring and considerate author also wants readers to keep the characters mentally sorted without too much effort as the book progresses. When Jones reappears after an absence of 30 to 40 pages, you don’t want the reader scratching her head and saying, “Let’s see — was Jones the rich uncle’s nephew or was it his secretary?”
            Based on my own reading experience, this can be a serious problem. Quite a few mysteries (and serious novels, as well) have left me dizzy trying to remember what the relationship between the characters was. That’s what sent me to the bookshelf for a look at Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery  to see if my memory was correct.
            The Greek Coffin Mystery was published in 1932, which definitely makes it early Queen, and sure enough, right at the front, I found what I was looking for: A list of characters. Each was described in only a few words, but those few words established the relationships between the characters and generally what they did.
At any point in the book, a reader could flip back to that page to double-check on who someone was.

So Old School It’s Not Even Retro

            Looking through the character list of this particular book, the reader can quickly be reminded that George Khalkis is an eminent art dealer (and the victim); and that Alan Cheney is the son of Delphina Sloane, who is Khalkis’ sister, and who is married to Gilbert Sloane, the manager of the Khalkis galleries. Got that?
            That sort of scorecard to help the reader keep the players straight can be most helpful, but it went out of style in the 1940s. A writer who tried to use the technique today would probably be laughed off Amazon for being so out of date he wasn’t even retro. The contemporary author has to write his way through that problem without the help of a cheat sheet.
            My approach to separating the sheep from the goats, so to speak, is threefold. First, I’m keeping the character list short; Wash Her Guilt Away has 15 characters compared to 39 in The Greek Coffin Mystery. Second, they aren’t related, except for the married couples. Third, I try to introduce them one or two at a time so the reader can get to know them before moving on. Will that help the reader avoid confusion? I don’t know, but the more critical question is, will the reader care about them? Several reviews commented favorably on the book’s character development, so I guess so.