How important is the cast of characters within a book?
I have been gnawing on this question for some time, especially after I’ve read a book or seen a movie or television show featuring a group of people of whom I have grown fond and become attached, which is not the same. I just finished binging “Last Tango in Halifax” (I know, I’m late to the party) and found myself experiencing a familiar emotion. What was I going to do without being able to tune in to Gillian destroying herself while frolicking with countless scoundrels on her dilapidated sheep farm? I’d grown fond of Caroline and her restraint while dealing with aging parents, foolish children, and an endearing but ridiculously weak ex-husband. I frantically searched for “stories like Last Tango in Paris,” hoping there was one more season I hadn’t discovered or a series that would fill the void. No luck. I recognized that I was feeling a loss and began grieving.
I remember when “Schitt’s Creek” came to an end. A ridiculous show with an unbelievable premise with characters so exaggerated, no one could relate to them. But they grew on me, just as they grew as characters. I loved Moira and David, and eventually Alexa. When Patrick entered David’s life, I was as pleased as a mother might be. He was so grounded and gave balance to David. How was it that I began to think of these fake people in familial terms?
The answer is because of good writing. The individual characters drew me in, but it was the relationship between them that made them feel real and important to me. Great characters who interact with each other on a relatable human level made the story important to me. I became invested in what happened to them.
There are many crime novels where writers have done this so seamlessly, readers don’t realize they have been coopted. Louise Penny is a genius at this. Inspector Gamache, Reine-Marie, Jean-Guy, and even Ruth and her silly duck have become like family to me after more than a dozen books and I’m sure I could navigate Three Pines without a map. The same goes for Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I share Lynley’s frustration, amusement, and his fondness for Barbara Havers. Without spoiling the plot, it took me a long time to forgive George about Helen (I skipped her book explaining it, I was so angry). I think you could say I was attached to the cast of characters. I could go on and on listing writers who have created casts of characters who become like family to their readers.
But how do they do it, the writer in me longs to know. How does a writer create fictional characters who become real and begin to matter to a reader? How does a writer create relationships between fictional characters that make them come alive?
I think I know the answer. I uncovered it while writing the Sabrina Salter series set in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first two in the series were published traditionally but the series was not renewed. I was disappointed but went on to write other books. Yet, I felt a loss, a nagging desire to continue the story of Sabrina, her sidekick Henry, her boyfriend Neil, and her dog, Girlfriend. I heard from readers who told me they wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know what happened to them. I cared about my characters and needed to tell their stories. I felt like my characters mattered to each other, which kept me awake at night. I was haunted by their unfinished stories, their untold secrets, and their incomplete lives. I began writing the series again because I cared about them.
If the writer doesn’t care about the people she creates and invites into the heart of her readers, they will remain within the pages of a book when the last word is read. When the writer misses her people, she can be pretty sure her readers will.
Dear writers and readers: What cast of characters impacted you? Did you miss them?
C. Michele Dorsey is the author of Oh Danny Girl and the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, Tropical Depression, and Salt Water Wounds. Her latest novel, Gone But Not Forgotten was published by Severn House in July 2023. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor, and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.