“Maybe Writers SHOULD Sweat the Small Stuff”

“Maybe Writers SHOULD Sweat the Small Stuff” 1024 576 Reader Views

by Randy Overbeck, Author of the award-winning Haunted Shores Mystery Series

When readers think of great mystery and thriller writers, they almost always think major protagonists. If you mention Lee Child to a fan, they’ll think Jack Reacher. If you raise Jeffrey Deaver, you’ll probably get Lincoln Ryme and James Patterson will probably yield Alex Cross—at least for his early books. You get the idea. Most of the time we think the novel’s success depends on good plots, great writing and engaging main characters, and we’d be right.

But, as I’ve read and studied some of my favorite authors, I’ve come to realize that these talented writers invest considerable time and effort in creating real, three dimensional characters for even their minor players. I’m not talking about the protagonists’ sidekicks. Patterson seldom brought out Alex Cross without his partner, John Sampson, Lincoln Ryme was paired with Amelia Sachs—in more ways than one—and we couldn’t even imagine Sherlock Holmes without Dr. Watson. More than this, the really best writers, in my opinion, are those who populate their tales with detailed, believable characters at even the smallest level. These rich, minor characters give the narratives depth and infuse the fictional world with a rich sense of reality. I think a few examples here may suffice.

One of my earliest encounters with mystery writers came from famed author Robert Parker. By now, I think I’ve read nearly every Spenser novel and almost all of his other works. Like the ones mentioned above, his hero usually ventures forth with Hawk covering his back. But Parker populates his forty novels with a whole realm of interesting small characters from his cop contacts, Belson and Quirk to his shared German Shepherd, Pearl to his gun-slinging friend, Vinny. But my point here is best made by his character of Dr. Susan Silverman. Susan, a Harvard-trained psychologist, is Spenser’s girl and confidant. Although her part in the story is small—at least in the number of pages devoted to her—her fully-fleshed out character adds great dimension to the tales. Through his interactions with her character, Spenser himself gets rounded out and becomes more authentic. She both keeps him grounded and challenges his decisions. As I read each entry in the series, I found myself looking forward to the next time she would appear.

For my second illustration and different example, I’ve selected another famous and bestselling author, C J. Box. For those not familiar with his work, he writes about the rugged northwest territory of Montana and Wyoming. His protagonist, Game Warden Joe Pickett is a perfect match for this wilderness, whose work takes him on a number of interesting and often perilous journeys among the mountains, rivers and valleys he patrols. Like other great writers, he has created a wide range of supporting players in his dramas from Joe’s wife and partner Mary Beth to his four daughters, from his nemesis /mother-in-law, Missy to the local sheriff Barnum, who Joe is constantly at odds with. But Box has a real knack for creating living, breathing characters who play even the smallest role. As evidence—as they would say in the courtroom—I give you Trophy Hunt, the 24th entry in his series. Partway into this intriguing mystery, Box reveals the character of Tuff Montague. In a little more than three pages, readers learn Tuff despises riding horses, likes to sing about them, wears a droopy mustache and a sweat-stained “Gus McCrae” hat. Like a lot of cowboys, he loves his whiskey, especially when it’s free—which he often receives as he regales newbies with his tales of being a real American cowboy, even acting the part in a Wild West show. In these few pages, we learn that Tuff recently lost his license due to his latest DUI. While he is up in the mountains on horseback, he is both remembering his latest conquest of the local barmaid and pining for his next rendezvous. Wheel-less, he is stuck atop his gelding and grousing about it, even as the horse makes the steady climb up the incline.

Box gives us all this and much more for a minor character who appears only on these few pages and then dies suddenly, one more victim in the complex crime Joe has to solve in this tale. Only later, do readers realize that pieces of Tuff’s description are important clues to solving the puzzle of the murders. While many writers would give only a few lines to a victim, Box makes Tuff live and breathe on these few pages, which makes readers mourn the death of even such a ne’er-do-well.

I’d like to offer one more example from my favorite mystery writer—whose current coming of age novel, This Tender Land, is on the USA Today Bestseller List. William Kent Kreuger is the award-winning author who has penned seventeen novels in the Cork O’Connor mystery series and his latest, Desolation Mountain, is also his best, I believe. His writing in this entry illustrates the ability of small, minor characters to flesh out the story in the hands of  skilled author. Anyone familiar with this series will remember the unforgettable character of Henry Meloux, the ancient Ojibwe Mide (or medicine man) who serves as Cork’s conscience and guide through his many trials. Even though his role in these tales are small, often only a few pages, I wait anxiously for him to reappear and share his strange wisdom—both for the reader and for Cork—as I read Kreuger’s latest entry.

But in this novel, the author raises the bar of minor characters for even his work. Early in the story, the reader encounters an older Objiwe, Ned Love and his nephew, Monkey, who, like a number of his Native American characters, live at the fringes of society. Kreuger’s novels are populated with a wide range of interesting, native characters who cover the whole range from good to evil. The two Objiwe natives witness something happening on Desolation Mountain and then seem to disappear—along with others in the town. There is so much happening and Cork has so many problems to deal with, the reader has little time to contemplate these strange minor characters and their disappearance. Only in the end, as these and other minor characters reemerge in the narrative, do readers grasp the skill of the author in using every line, every character to enrich such a captivating story. No character, not even the smallest one is wasted.

I’ve tried to learn from these and many other talented writers as I’ve written my series, the Haunted Shores Mysteries. Like other mystery authors, in my first entry, Blood on the Chesapeake, I matched my protagonist, Darrell Henshaw—teacher, coach and paranormal sensitive—with his own partner and love interest, Erin Caveny, who helps him get to the truth behind the mysteries surrounding his ghostly visitors. Darrell’s teaching colleague, friend and tormentor, Al McClure provides some much needed comic relief—though admittedly little— from Darrell’s serious obsessive nature.

But the minor character I created that readers found most compelling was that of Natalia Pavlenco, a recent graduate of Wilshire High. Natalia is a sultry, dark-skinned, captivating young woman with some uncertain Slavic origins. Al introduces Darrell to Natalia so that she can help him with his ghost problem, as Natalia is a medium. But, in the small town of Wilshire, there’s not much call for the skills of a medium. So Natalia moonlights, plying her other talents in what passes for a red-light district in town. She has much to offer in “the lady of the evening” trade and sets her sights on Darrell. This of course generates a conflict between Natalia and Erin, one Darrell has to navigate very carefully as he needs the medium’s insights. Natalia drew such a positive response from readers of Blood that, when I crafted the second novel, Crimson at Cape May, I worked a way to include Natalia, even though the bulk of the story happens outside of Wilshire. And, before you ask, I’m having Natalia make a brief, though important appearance in the third entry in the series—scheduled for release fall, 2021 even though the action here takes place on the gulf coast of Florida.

The lesson from all of this? Maybe we, as writers, should sweat the small stuff, like precise historical details, specific geographic characteristics and most important, the characters who play a walk-on role in our novels. Crafting minor characters who are real, believable and integral to our story gives the narrative added texture and depth and readers will notice.

I do, every time.

Randy Overbeck is the author of the award-winning Haunted Shores Mysteries Series. The first two books in the series, BLOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE (2019) and CRIMSON AT CAPE MAY (2020) were released by the Wild Rose Press. Both books have won national awards and garnered five-star reviews for national and international reviewers. Book number three in the series, a Christmas ghost story/mystery, is due out October 2021.

Connect with Randy Overbeck!

Website: www.authorrandyoverbeck.com
Email: randyoverbeck@authorrandyoverbeck.com
Twitter: @OverbeckRandy
Facebook: AuthorRandyOverbeck

  • Shirley Goldberg

    Excellent article and strangely or coincidentally a subject I’ve been thinking about this past few weeks. Like including more of my character’s family, for example. Even a few sentences goes a long way in fleshing out a character’s life.

    So, this is timely and important. If a character is included in the book, there should be a reason. And all characters function as more than props.

    Great job with detailed, concrete information!

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