Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Writer's Repertory

I recently came across a quote by Gore Vidal that caught my attention and sparked my thinking about major and minor characters. Anyone who writes a mystery series will develop a number of minor characters in order to tell a fully fleshed-out story. I have several in the Anita Ray series, not all of them recurring, but Vidal's comment made me take a second look at them.

The quote is taken from an interview with Vidal in Conversations with American Writers edited by Charles Ruas.

"I heard somewhere the idea that every writer has a given theatre in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee [Williams] has five, [Ernest] Hemingway has one, [Samuel] Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with its characters." (quoted in Authors Guild Bulletin, Summer 2014, p. 34)

Normally I would keep reading after Vidal self-servingly claims to have ten characters while other writers, Williams and Hemingway, have far fewer. But his comment on Beckett, which made me laugh, was smarter than I gave him credit for being, and his final comment was worth thinking about.

I don't know how many characters the average writer has. But I do think all writers are in danger of repeating ourselves. If we have one successful book, we are tempted to look for the magic in it, and try to capture and repeat it, for future success. If we don't do that overtly, we may still begin a second story and soon find ourselves repeating scenes that reveal patterns. This is the territory of academics, who look for themes and underlying issues in a writer's body of work.

Anyone who writes a series in any genre faces the problem of avoiding repetition, and we work hard to make our characters and stories original in each installment. It goes without saying that we develop a main character that can carry a number of stories. We then surround our series character with a family, of sorts, of supporting characters who have the potential to grow and surprise us. We give each character a past or history, clear physical description, and specific attitudes and quirks. We strive to know them deeply, their emotional content, as well as their ordinary behavior.

In the Anita Ray series, Anita lives with her Auntie Meena at Hotel Delite. The cast of characters includes Moonu, the main waiter, Ravi, the desk clerk, and various other staff. Anita encounters murder among hotel guests and at her relatives' homes. If Anita travels, she usually does so with her Auntie Meena and Joseph, the hotel driver. This core cast was introduced in the first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali.

After characters, we turn our focus to creating unusual situations to test the sleuth and explore other types of character. In the second Anita Ray mystery, The Wrath of Shiva, Anita discovers the theft of ancient images from her extended family's estate. Smuggling of holy images in India is a special problem because of the sacredness and unique standing of these icons. We learn more about Anita's physical courage in this story.

We may change setting, introduce problems among the "family" members, or put the sleuth in danger. But the goal has to continue to be to make the characters seem as real as possible. Whether we like them or not, the individual who crosses the stage must feel real to engage the reader.

I don't know how many characters I have in my repertory, but I work hard to develop minor characters so that they carry much of the story and are themselves worth reading about. I want what happens to them to be interesting and their circumstances compelling. In the third Anita Ray mystery, For the Love of Parvati, Anita shares part of center stage with Parvati, a maidservant with a secret and a fear. As an undocumented worker from Sri Lanka, she has fled the now-ended civil war but fears that others hold her to an old code of honor.

Anita travels easily through the layers of society that is modern India, from life with foreigners at her hotel to traditional homes and ways of life. In a short story, "The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum," Anita meets another young woman trying to
traverse the same boundary, between the traditional and the modern.

I don't think I could write a story without a character, in imitation of Samuel Beckett, but if you're wondering how he does it, look at a few of his shorter works. For a play without a character, I nominate Quad, one of my favorite Beckett "performances,"available on youtube.


  1. The best part is that the characters take up residence in our minds and enrich our lives enormously!

  2. We do tend to live in fantasy worlds. Lucky us!

  3. Fascinating quotation by Vidal. Interesting blog. Now I'm going to think all day about how many characters live in my brain and probably won't get anything else done! Maybe my characters will get into a brawl and someone else will pop in and sort them all out. Oy. Confusing.

  4. The quote made me think about the "family" of characters I've created for each series. Maybe I need a catalyst such as the one you suggested. Hmm. Interesting idea.