Michele Drier is a fifth generation Californian who’s worked in journalism as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers and won awards for her investigative series. Her fifteen books include the Amy Hobbes Newspaper Mysteries; The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, a series of paranormal romances; and The Stained Glass Murders. Learn more about Michele and her books at her website.
Whatever Happened To…?
You’re reading the third book in a mystery series by your new favorite author.
Suddenly, you realize that Anne, a strong woman you admired in the last book isn’t anywhere to be seen (or read)?
Did the author kill her off when you weren’t paying attention? Did she move? Did the location of the story move?
Why does the cast of characters change in series? Not the major ones, of course. Who could imagine an Elizabeth George story without Linley and Barbara? On the other hand, George did kill off Linley’s wife Helen after several books with increasing romantic tension between them. Life is unpredictable.
And that’s why some characters appear and disappear.
Think about life. We’re all constantly growing and changing, not in our basic nature but in small ways. We master a new skill, maybe learning how to use technology, and lose other skills.
Over the Fourth of July, my daughter and her two daughters came for a barbecue and a swim. When my daughter went to a seldom-used cupboard to look for a plate, she pulled out a phone book, that workhorse of communication in the past. Neither granddaughter knew what it was!
What do we as readers feel when our characters don’t change but keep using the same tools, the same ideas, the same habits? You don’t want to read the same plot over and over, nor do you want to read only characters who are stuck in a time- or friend-warp.
Just as people change, developing new friends, taking on new jobs, finding new relationships, our protagonists need to change to stay compelling and interesting. One way writers handle this is to leave some characters behind. In my first Stained Glass Murder, Stain on the Soul, my protag, Roz Duke, found a sidekick, a town busybody named Patsy.
As a character, Patsy helped define the setting, was a foil for Roz’ sleuthing ,and a small comic relief to ease tensions.
I’m currently working on the next two books in the series and Patsy has no role. Partly because the next two books aren’t set in the small town where Roz and Patsy live, partly because Roz, who’d been recently widowed in the first book, is learning her own strengths.
There are bit-players, those townspeople who populate the story and we see in anything from a small speaking part to a cameo. These are the warp and weft that give texture to our protagonist and her life; the dry cleaner, the grocer, the letter carrier, or the bartender, and they may not move on to other books in the series.
A writer can’t simply omit a previous character who’s had some impact on the protag though, there must be an explanation of where that character (human or animal) went. In Stain on the Soul, Roz has a dog, a rescue Greyhound named Tut who helps save her. In the second book, Roz is on a sabbatical in England. Early in the book, my critique partners demanded to know where Tut was so Tut is off-screen, but we hear about him from the person who’s taking care of him via Roz’ phone calls home.
It’s a fine line knowing which characters need to stay and which must get left behind. The author needs to weigh each character and know what he or she brings to the plot, to the growth of the protagonist, to the tension of the story.
We’ve grown accustomed to characters behaving in a certain way, understanding certain beliefs and there are times and plots where these characters just can’t adapt or won’t fit.
A good friend, and excellent writer, has reached that spot with one of her secondary but important characters. The character is in a position to supervise the protagonist and is also a close friend. While trying to help the protagonist overcome her alcohol problem, the supervisor herself loses her job. This is a double whammy and the author is debating dropping the character or veering off on a new plotline and definition of the friendship.
Characters disappear in any number of ways—murder, move, marriage—but a good writer understands why the character is no longer around and makes sure the reader has an explanation.
A “Wait! Whatever happened to…” will leave readers feeling cheated. When an author begins a series, she/he must track all the characters and decide who will stick around for the long haul and who is going to get jettisoned and why.
Sometimes one just has to say good-bye.
Stain on the Soul
A Stained Glass Mystery, Book
Who murdered Winston Duke? Why? His widow, Rosalind (Roz) had no answers but to put her life back together, the internationally known stained glass artist moved to a small town on the Oregon coast. Here, where she knew no one, she planned to use the beach, scoured by wind and water, to cleanse her soul and rebuild her creativity. That is, until one morning when her peace was smashed by the lights and sirens of emergency vehicles, and the sight of her neighbor’s bloody body being taken away. Meeting others from the town, Roz is pulled into a mystery of who the neighbor was and finds a circle of friends far removed the Los Angeles of her life with Winston.