By Michelle Gwynn Jones
When it comes to character development, I have no problem coming up with the main character and the secondary or supporting characters. I see them clearly in the office, at the crime scene or eating an ice cream cone by the river. What bogs me down are the tertiary characters. I don’t mean the throwaways ones like the guy who sells them their frozen treat, but the one who will contribute in some significant way. I found myself spending way too much time sitting in front of the computer contemplating whether they are a man or a woman or simply picking their name.
Then about a year ago I found a solution to my problem. While with a friend, we ran into a co-worker of hers at the store, a woman I had never met, but I recognized her co-shopper as the mother of a child my son played T-ball with. When you live in a town of twenty thousand residents you bump into people you know from one place or another all the time at the dry cleaner, the dentist or the dump.
That’s when I decided I could, and should, recycle my characters.
Everything I write takes place in the fictional town of New Grace, South Carolina, a town approximately the same size of the one I live in. It seems so natural to cross over my characters. The detective from my Rachel Shorte Mysteries is investigating a crime in my Reese Millridge novel. The mother of twins in The Man in Black crosses paths with a serial killer in another work in progress. Rachel Shorte’s law partner turns out to be the mother of one of the teenage girls in Transferred Intent.
The character’s history is not important to the roles I am now presenting them in. A person reading Reese Millridge does not need to know about the complicated life of the detective’s girlfriend or that the young mother was there when a hit man took out his target or that the attorney has her own problems with the Sheriff’s Department.
A friend reading Reese Millridge called to say she just came across the detective in the wrong series. I knew exactly what page she was on. When she finished the novel, we discussed his appearance in the book. She told me having read books in both series the crossover was a nice touch and agreed if she hadn’t read the other book she wouldn’t have given him much thought other than his investigation. She said she liked having intimate knowledge of his personal life; it was like reading a newspaper article in which a friend is mentioned.
I am enjoying scattering my characters about town through my writing, but like anything else fun, it comes at a cost. Now I need to keep a character sheet for people who were once throwaways, and not only must I maintain a meticulous timeline for each story, I need to make sure their timelines are in line with each other.
Actually sitting here writing this, I have to ask myself if my solution to tertiary characters takes up more of my time than I wasted staring at the computer screen before; but it’s too late to turn back now, I’m addicted.