The complex web of supporting characters.
Oh how tangled the network of suspects can become.
The suspicion needs to fall on someone. Many someones, in fact.
As we’ve been taking a journey through the construction of a mystery, eventually we must come to the trickiest part. It is quite an accomplishment to round up a number of suspects to achieve that most delicate balance of enough to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that they can’t keep track and get overwhelmed.
For the past month I’ve been making decent headway on this, but I’ve found it requires attention from multiple angles:
A murder victim who’s made a lot of enemies
Some of these enemies are known, some unknown by the victim
Careful attention to names to keep them easy to tell apart
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As I’ve mentioned before, I am the sort of mystery reader who prefers a victim who had it coming on some level. The sort of reader, for example, who was uncomfortable how much I was rooting for Dexter ridding the world of evil-doers on his own terms.
(That said, nearly every mystery I’ve read recently breaks this rule and I still enjoyed them, the most noteworthy being Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder, featuring a quintissential blameless victim almost immediately.)
But as a new writer of the genre, I find I’m more drawn to a victim who has wielded power irresponsibly over many people’s lives, in some cases deliberately, and in some cases accidentally or several times removed. A prime example is Michael Gambon’s character in Gosford Park: the classic wealthy patriarch with the purse strings strangling every member of the family upstairs, and his poor choices wreaking havoc over generations below stairs on the servants.
I was certain from the start that my victim would be a man (or men, in the case of this book). There are far too many stories of tortured and brutalized women, and it doesn’t feel right to add to their number. I am more interested in how murder is employed when people are pushed to the edge.
My victim is a man who’s been in charge of a company in the fast fashion industry. I am still refining the exact details here, but it fits as a business where people all over the world, people he had never even met, could be seriously hurt by decisions he made. I’ve puzzled a lot on what could make someone angry enough to kill someone they had never met.
These reflections have delivered a large assembly of potential suspects. Some who are family or friends with grudges going back months or years or decades, and some who appear to be strangers on the trip the victim is taking, hiding their connection to him at all costs.
Amusingly, clarifying the identity of the victim created a geyser of potential people furious enough to bump him off. What feels most fun is lining up a ship full of people with good reason to kill, without deciding in advance who’s going to take him out before I begin drafting.
The challenge was not creating enough characters, rather it was picking names I could tell apart. For example, it’s not possible to have a Caroline and a Catherine in the same book, nor a Mike and a Matt. Last names need to be sufficiently different, too. As the proud owner of a three syllable first AND last name in my everyday life (Car-o-line Don-a-hue; thankfully M.C. Williams is slightly shorter), I tend to create characters with very short names. I’ve had to fight that habit to keep a variety.
Melissa and May could be in the same book potentially, but May and Meg? Forget it.
Thankfully, name isn’t the only way to distinguish characters from each other. Age, appearance, background, class, race, profession, and nationality will all further develop these characters in readers’ minds, I hope, but it drives me nuts when I read a book and can’t keep track of who people are.
In particular, I find I struggle when people’s full names are only mentioned once and different characters call them by just a first or last name afterward. I don’t always catch that it’s the same person they’re talking about. Anyone else have this problem?
When the list of people is particularly long, I frequently wish for a cast of character list to flip to and straighten things out.
How do you feel about this convention? Does it help, or intimidate you upon opening the book because it looks like a giant Russian novel?
I’m curious to hear your pet peeves about suspects and supporting characters in general as I get ready to start writing this book.
Many thanks to Helen Redfern of The Red Fern for featuring Nicola Upson in her TBR lists so I found her!
images: Paolo Chiabrando
I remember reading a Tana French book a while back (though can't remember the title :) and the story was compelling enough to have the zipping through it, but there were SO MANY NAMES I got confused, and by the time we found out whodunit I had no idea who this person was. 😂