Sunday, November 28, 2010

Barbara Fradkin on the Supporting Cast

Creating and Maintaining a Supporting Cast

Ten years ago I blundered into this mystery business without a whit of foresight or experience. I had published a few short stories, but when Inspector Green first hit the bookstores in 2000, I had no idea I was creating a series.

As a reader, I was never a slave to series. I rarely read them in order, and generally sampled only a few from each writer. I love British detective novels, but there are too many other wonderful books out there for me to read all the Rebus or Dalgleish books, no matter now much I loved them.

So I didn't know a thing about how to set up a series. How to create a memorable and enduring main character, and even more important, how to surround him with a cast of characters that grew and changed as they followed him from book to book. I wrote Inspector Green as a character I would like to meet - creative, iconoclastic, intelligent, passionate and single-minded when he was on the hunt. As a result, he was a tactless superior, an unreliable husband, and a willfully deaf subordinate, but definitely someone you'd want solving your murder.

I gave him a sergeant who made up for all his flaws. Sergeant Brian Sullivan was patient, pragmatic, and fatherly with rookie cops and grieving families alike. I gave him a wife who put up with his short-comings (barely, at times) because she knew, deep down he was a good man. I rounded out the supporting cast with a boss, a few other subordinates, and a baby to make him human.

I recently launched the eighth in the series, BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD. Over eight books, all these characters have grown. So have I! Mike Green is a far more complex and layered character than my initial creation. Each case has touched him and changed him, moving him forward on his quest for balance and maturity. One of the joys of writing a series is this chance to live with a character, to let him grow and to deepen and enrich his life. I think I have been lucky with Mike Green, for readers seem to enjoy this journey as well. They eagerly await the next book, wondering what he will confront this time, whether his wife will throw him out and whether he and his teenage daughter will mend their fractured bond. Readers react passionately to his transgressions, and their reactions help me to understand how he comes across. This is important to a series author. I don't mind if the reader wants to slap him upside the head for forgetting his wife. But I do mind if they want to throw the book against the wall or abandon the series, for that means the Inspector Green in my heart is not coming to life on the page.

Even more surprising to me, however, has been the power that supporting characters play in the success of a series. Again, I blundered into this discovery purely by serendipity, as readers began to voice their opinions. Different readers have their favourites, but there is always some continuing character that captures the hearts and loyalties of readers. Minor continuing characters provide novelty, opportunities for fresh conflict, and an element of unpredictability which keeps tensions high. Everyone knows that Green will live to solve another crime. But will Brian Sullivan? Will Sue Peters recover? Has Superintendent Jules truly crossed the line?

If the author listens too closely, these loyalties can have a paralyzing effect. Once I idly mused that I was thinking of shaking up Green's life with a major personal crisis. One reader immediately wagged a warning finger. "Don't you dare kill off his father!" Given that his father is edging towards ninety and has been in fragile health throughout the series, I have to face that sometime. But now I worry. Killing off Sid Green will be traumatic enough for me and Green. But for my readers too? Will they give up on the series without their favourite character to revisit?

Recently, several readers have told me they were upset about Brian Sullivan's crisis. Others worried that I was going to write Green's teenage daughter out of the series. I never know what I'm going to do ahead of time. In fact, new characters usually come into the series on the spur of the moment, to serve a purpose to that plot, and they stay around because I enjoy them. Little did I know that readers would care about them too. Or that they'd be an integral part of the appeal and success of the series. Authors, agents and publishers devote a lot of effort to creating an appealing and enduring series lead, but little to the supporting cast who make up the back story and emotional depth of the series.

To keep a series fresh, the drama high and the author entertained, new characters have to burst on the scene and old ones have to fade away. Most of us weigh how each new character will complement the existing characters, creating new contrasts, tensions and intrigue. Maybe we need to give equal thought to how to get rid of them, lest our books become populated with dozens of secondary characters with nothing to do. Getting rid of boring, annoying or inconsequential characters is easy, but those much-loved ones are a different story. We authors write them out or kill them off at our peril.

Ultimately it is our series and our story to tell, but it helps to consider the supporting characters that stir such a passionate following. To ponder what about them is so compelling and what they contribute to the power of the series. The gaping hole will have to be filled somehow, not by a similar character, but perhaps by a character who provides the same emotional context or fills the same need.

I'd love to hear people's experience with this. Any authors who've wrestled with dispatching popular characters? Readers who've been horrified to find their favourite dead at the end of a book?

Barbara Fradkin is a psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. Her gritty, psychological detective series featuring Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green has won two Arthur Ellis Best Novel Awards for Fifth Son and Honour Among Men. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead,, has just been released by Napoleon & Company.