Susannah here, enjoying a cup of joe … and avoiding housework...
So, my Wicked people, today I thought we’d have a Mythbusting session. No, I’m not going to use a magnifying glass and the sun to start a campfire, or investigate the potentially uncomfortable results of combining Pop Rocks and soda. Not that that wouldn’t be fun–er, educational!
I belong to a number of different writers’ email loops, and they are sources of invaluable information. But sometimes they are full of misinformation. Or perhaps I should say misperceptions.
Recently on one of the loops someone mentioned the “fact” that cozies are not “deep” and that she was having trouble connecting with her characters and story. This was her first cozy contract, but she had extensive experience writing in the romance and paranormal genres. A couple of people chimed in that they were writing or reading cozies and either implied or came right out and said that cozies were “light,” the implication being that they were shallow.
I’m going on the record right now to tell you that traditional, cozy mysteries do NOT have to be shallow, devoid of character arcs and development, or plot driven to the point that the characters don’t matter. Certainly no Wicked Cozy or Accomplice is writing books like that! I butted in and emailed the author privately and we brainstormed some ways that she could not only get more into her sleuth’s head, but tie what’s in her head to the plot–both the immediate plot (the murder), and the ongoing plot (the character’s backstory and development over the series). So in case this helps any writer or reader get a better handle on adding or identifying depth in stories–any genre–here are some of the thoughts and techniques I offered:
- The key difference between an ongoing series, like a cozy mystery or darker procedural, and a standalone, like a romance, is that the main character’s entire character arc cannot–in fact, MUST not–be revealed in one book. In a romance, you only get one chance. There are two main characters, and they fall in love, overcome obstacles to their relationship, including both external AND internal, and in the end they get together with a promise of a Happily Ever After. The End. These characters may make cameo appearances in later related novels, but their character arcs are essentially completed because subsequent books have new romantic partners as main characters.
- However, in an ongoing series, if the author reveals everything in the first book, or starts the main character from a place where she’s already settled (already happily married, already has children, already firmly established in a profession, completely secure in her place in the community), the author and the story have nowhere to go in subsequent books. An exception to the above would be if the character starts from a place where she THINKS she’s settled or all her demons are conquered, but then something happens to throw that balance way, way off.
- Give the main character some family issues. A mother or father who abandoned her. A sibling with whom she has never gotten along. An interfering grandmother. An awful ex-husband with a new trophy wife. A mother or father who disapproves of what she is doing with her life. A family secret that no one ever talked about, but that suddenly comes to a head, causing strong emotions to come up. This ensures lots of plot and conflict material for future books. And if a relative or someone else from her past gets killed off later, the heroine will have to deal with the guilt that they never reconciled. Or maybe one of these people is accused of murder, and the heroine finds she can use finding the real killer as a means of reconciliation. Does the heroine take some action, thinking she’s doing the right thing, but in the process injures an innocent person and must find a way to deal with her guilt and make things right?
- Give your heroine a deep-seated reason to want/need to succeed. She could have a need to prove her parents wrong–they wanted her to go to law school, but she wanted to open a bead store and make jewelry. Or she could have had a boss or a teacher who told her she had no talent and would never amount to anything, and she has believed it, limiting her success. Or maybe she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, so it’s vitally important to her to have roots and financial security. Or maybe she has been working at a job that sucks the life out of her but pays the bills, but her real dream is to drive an ice cream truck. Does she have a physical challenge that she has always been told will prevent her from being what she wants to be, and she needs to change her belief system in order to get there? Help the character find a way or ways over time to move closer to her dream(s).
- Use secondary characters as foils for the sleuth’s over-time development. Example: a friend falls for a con man, and the heroine knows he’s dishonest because the guy tells the same kind of stories as her own ex. So helping her friend also gives her some closure with her own issues. Or a member of the community or the sleuth’s mentor figure used to be a stockbroker, but gave it all up to come home to her small town to open her dream knitting shop. By example, the heroine sees that living authentically is possible, which could allow her to grow and develop and make strides toward her dream(s).
This cozy stuff is like any other genre fiction–it just happens at a slower rate over a series. The thing is that whatever character issues you choose, they have to be woven in over the framework of the mystery itself. So the character issues should tie in with the heroine’s success–or failure–at solving the mysteries.
It’s your turn, readers and writers. How much character development do you want to see, and how quickly do you want it to happen over a series? What are some examples of series that make character development a priority (whether or not you agree with the direction the author chose to take her/his character, which is another topic entirely)?