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Monday, June 20, 2016

to Change or Not to Change? Writing Series Characters in Traditional Mysteries: Katherine Bolger Hyde

Our next SJ SinC meeting will be July 2.

Our guest will be Katherine Bolger Hyde.

One of the many challenges of writing a mystery series is keeping the main characters fresh and engaging through a number of books. I’m currently writing the fourth book of the Crime with the Classics series, even though the first will debut on July 12, so I’ve already been struggling with this issue.

My models in all things crime fiction are the great ladies of the British Golden Age—the group I fondly refer to as my “dead Englishwomen”: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth. Let’s look briefly at how they handled their series characters.

Poirot and Miss Marple are examples of static characters. Poirot is always Poirot—brilliant, vain, fastidious, reliant on order, method, and the little gray cells. Miss Marple is always Miss Marple—outwardly dithery but inwardly sharp as the points of her knitting needles, skeptical about human nature but kind to the just and the unjust. Christie in fact grew bored with Poirot after a time, which is one of the dangers inherent in a static character. If the writer cannot find new depths in the character over time, the reader may grow bored as well. Fortunately for Christie, her inventiveness in plot creation never ran dry, and thus her readers stayed interested to the end.

Wentworth’s Miss Silver is another static character, but she is so charming we never tire of her dowdy clothes, her Victorian morality, her quotations from Tennyson. The reader finds rest in her presence just as her clients do.

Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, and Campion are more rounded characters from the beginning, with plenty of depth for the reader to discover as their series progress. Each of these detectives falls in love, marries, and has children in the course of their series, and these events do change them—but in the subtle, gradual ways such changes happen in real life. Marriage and parenthood ground these characters, give them emotional security, but at the same time the additional burden of protecting their loved ones—which, when said loved ones become embroiled in an investigation, can be harrowing indeed. The true evolution of these characters, however, lies in the reader getting to know them better from book to book rather than in any great internal transformation.

The contemporary received wisdom seems to be that, at least in the darker subgenres of crime fiction, a detective must have some sort of fatal flaw or personal demon that he or she wrestles with from book to book. This may be a vice, such as alcoholism, or a traumatic event in the character’s past, or a troublesome relationship, or a secret that must be kept at all costs. The evolution of the struggle with this demon often constitutes the bulk of the character's development.

All these seem a bit too dark for the average cozy or traditional mystery. Here we often see character development take the form of a romance that evolves from book to book. The protagonist may have some unhappy history that makes it difficult for her to commit, but it is rarely as dark and traumatic as one might find in hard-boiled or noir. As the character heals from her past, the romance is allowed to ripen.

The key, I think, to making any of these approaches work is to be sure to create from the beginning a character that both writer and reader can love—love as we would a friend, for her virtues, her quirks, and her flaws. She must have sufficient depth that different aspects of her character and history can come to light in successive books. If she is haunted by something, it must not so dominate her life that its resolution leaves her with no more room to grow.

In real life, revolutions in character are rare (though possible), but gradual growth and change are the norm, and, in fact, the necessary conditions of life. When a character—or at least the reader’s perception of her—ceases to grow and change, she begins to die, and the work may die with her.


Katherine Bolger Hyde is not actually related to Ray Bolger, but she always wished she were (anyway, the name is pronounced the same, with a soft "g"). She was born almost in New York City in 1956 and has lived all over the US, but currently makes her home in the redwood country of California with her husband, youngest child, and two obstreperous cats. Katherine taught herself to read at age four and has rarely been without a book since. She decided at age eleven to become a writer, her initial idols being Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott. In college she majored in Russian literature and expanded her favorites to include Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens, and many more.

Katherine writes the Crime with the Classics traditional mystery series for adults as well as fantasy and picture books for children. When not writing, reading, or editing (her day job), she can usually be found singing, dancing, knitting, or drawing plans for her dream house.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful commentary about what appears to be a delightful series.