Keeping Characters Apart
Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 4, 2013
By Beate Boeker
Nancy asked me to share some writing tips with you, and I thought I would focus on one aspect that every writer encounters – how to keep people apart. In a mystery, you start with a few key people: The heroine or hero, the murderer, victim one, maybe victim two.
As I’m switching viewpoints between both of them, I think it’s fairly easy to get those people clear in your mind. At the beginning, I characterize them in turn by judging them through the eyes of the other. Here’s the moment when Carlina meets Garini for the first time:
Carlina dropped onto the sofa and looked at the Commissario who took a seat in the battered armchair to her left. His face was lean and thin, and his nose reminded her of a hawk. No, the resemblance with a hawk came from the eyes. They were light and hard and gave her the impression he could spot a detail at a distance of several kilometers. He didn’t look like someone who would understand a silly mistake or two.
Garini in turn discusses her with his assistant Piedro. I’ve made Piedro a bit slow, so much so that he only has to say one sentence, and you pretty much realize that this is the dumb assistant even if you have forgotten his name in the meantime.
“What was her name? Carlina?” Piedro asked.
“No. Caroline Ashley.”
Piedro frowned. “Everybody called her Carlina.”
“A nickname.” For an instant, Stefano saw Carlina’s pale face again. The freckles had made her look younger than she was. Her eyes reminded him of a cat, slanted and intelligent.
Piedro shrugged off the name. “She acted real nervous.”
“Yes, I noticed that too.”
So far, so good. You’re unlikely to forget the victim and the hero(s). However, as an author, you need to populate the scene with plenty of other people milling about in order to create enough red herrings.
Carlina is part of a huge family, and many of the members live in the same house which is split up into individual apartments. On the ground floor, to the right, we have her grandfather Nico, who was murdered. On the left is the apartment of her grandfather’s identical twin. His name is Teodoro Alfredo Mantoni. He’s the most senior man in the house, the patriarch of the family, so I made sure that everybody calls him Uncle Teo, instead of just Teo, and whenever he enters the scene, I mention something that immediately refers to his age – his rheumy eyes, the age spots on his skin, his white hair.
Each of the twins has seven kids, all adults with their own families now. I created this huge family on purpose, to have enough room for further novels. However, I do not introduce all of them in the first novel, to avoiding confusing my readers (and myself!).
Uncle Teo is married to Aunt Maria, who is not only exceedingly fat, but who likes to eat garlic in huge quantities. As soon as she makes an entry, everybody runs to the window or speaks through the nose.
On the next floor, we have on one side Benedetta, who is one of Nico’s younger daughters. Her two teenage kids (seventeen and nineteen) live with her. Her husband died some years ago.
At this point, I feared the eyes of the reader would already glaze over, so I gave each of the appearing persons one special trait. Whenever they appear, I repeat this trait to help my readers stay oriented. Benedetta is always using bright red lipstick. She’s calm and pretty normal in this exuberant family. Her kids both have bright red hair. The younger is Ernesto, the elder Annalisa. Annalisa is very much focused on herself, besides being a true beauty. Ernesto loves to play computer games. I assumed that if I mentioned the red hair throughout the novel as a sort of signal, my readers would immediately be able to place both Ernesto and Annalisa.
Across the landing is their elder sister Emma’s apartment. She’s getting married to Lucio in the first novel. Emma knows exactly what she wants, and she has fantastic legs. Lucio is extremely jealous and traditional, so I made sure to refer to this whenever they appear.
Another floor up, we have Fabbiola. She is Carlina’s mother, and her strand of henna-colored hair is the most typical thing about her. She also has a little habit of carrying around a cushion whenever she leaves the house, so she’s clearly a bit batty, but in a nice sort of way. Whenever Fabbiola appears, the cushion appears, too, and I think this is too eccentric to be forgotten easily.
Carlina is fiercely loyal to her family, and this loyalty is her biggest problem, not only when it comes to finding the murderer but also in her relationship with Garini, who has no large family at all and is the quintessential lonely wolf.
Besides these typical traits I keep mentioning throughout the novel, I gave the characters very different names, some long, some short, and I made sure I did not have them start with the same letter. (I slipped up on Ernesto and Emma, but it’s too late to change that now!). There’s nothing more confusing than a whole family that’s called Lea, Lou, and Liz.
I don’t have any animals in my novels so far, but if they appear, I will give them animal names, like Woof for a dog or Purr for a cat. This might not be very creative, but I once read a novel where the dog was called Sarah, and it threw me time and again. “Sarah followed him into the house.” All through the chapter, I kept wondering ‘Who was Sarah again?’ – until she finally started to bark.
In addition to the traits I keep repeating, I’ll remind the reader of each character’s relationship to Carlina as soon as possible in the course of a natural conversation. Here’s an example:
“Where’s father?” Carlina’s mother sidled along the pew closer to her daughter. Her long blue skirt twisted around her legs, and she pulled it free with an impatient tug.
“Ssshhh.” Carlina placed a finger on her lips and pointed at the altar where Emma and Lucio stood in front of the priest.
Fabbiola stood on tiptoe and brought her mouth to her daughter’s ear. “Why were you so late?”
In this short paragraph, I have mentioned the words mother, daughter, and Fabbiola’s name, so even the most casual reader should be able to place Fabbiola now.
If someone doesn’t make an entry very often, I often use a blunt question from a comparative outsider to help get everybody oriented. Here’s an example from book number two, Charmer’s Death:
Benedetta continued. “We met her in town because she was still at Giulietta’s.”
“Who is Giulietta?” Garini frowned.
“Giulietta is a cousin once removed,” Caroline replied. “She’s also a hairdresser.”
Sometimes, when writing, it feels as if you’re overdoing it. After all, this is your world, and you know these characters intimately. But your readers may be distracted. They may have been interrupted when reading the book the last time, and you don’t want them to be confused as to who’s talking and what on earth the character is doing there.
I hope this little explanation helps a little and would love to hear your thoughts!
Delayed Death (Temptation in Florence) by Beate Boeker
What do you do when you find your grandfather dead half an hour before your cousin’s wedding? You hide him in his bed and tell everyone he didn’t feel like coming.
Delayed Death is an entertaining mystery set in Florence, Italy. When Carlina finds her grandfather dead on the day of her cousin’s wedding, she decides to hide the corpse until after the ceremony. However, her grandfather was poisoned, and she becomes the attractive Inspector’s prime suspect. On top of that, she has to manage her boisterous family and her luxurious lingerie store called Temptation, a juggling act that creates many hilarious situations.
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Beate Boeker is a traditionally published author since 2008. She now offers many full-length novels and short stories online. Several of her titles were shortlisted for the Golden Quill Contest, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the ‘Best Indie Books of 2012’ contest.
Beate is a marketing manager by day with a degree in International Business Administration, and her daily experience in marketing continuously provides her with a wide range of fodder for her novels, be it hilarious or cynical. While ‘Boeker’ means ‘books’ in a German dialect, her first name Beate can be translated as ‘Happy’ . . . and with a name that reads ‘Happy Books’, what else could she do but write novels with a happy end?
Website – www.happybooks.de
Facebook – Beate Boeker Author
Twitter – @BeateBoeker