The other day I heard from a reader with a complaint:
I enjoy your Meg Langslow mysteries. However, the most recent one, Some Like it Hawk, completely omits one character that had been in the two previous books in the series. Who? The little boy Timmy. At the end of The Real Macaw, the possibility that he might return to his mother if she was posted to Germany was mentioned. But that was uncertain. Some Like it Hawk should at least clarify whether Timmy has left or not. Instead, he isn't even refered to. Would you clear this up with your readers?
One of the fun things about each book is that I get to introduce new characters. A writer needs new characters, unless she plans on killing off her regular characters and convicting other regular characters of the crimes. Quite apart from the fact that that would tend to bring the series to an end after a few books, I don't think readers would like that very much. At the end of each book, I always have a whole new bunch of people whose quirks and foibles I've come to enjoy and whose guilty secrets I've revealed over the course of the investigation. I'm rather fond of them. What the heck do I do with them?
Some of them become regulars--characters who appear in every book. But since I'm writing traditional mysteries, not Russian novels, I don't have room to do that too often. Some become recurring characters, characters I bring in when I need them to tell the story. Most just walk off into the sunset, continuing their lives, no doubt, but not on my stage. I pretty much assume that along with the killer and the victim or victims, I should not plan on bringing back anyone who has been a serious suspect, because it would be unfair to a reader who reads the books out of order--the one exception being when one of Meg's loved ones is a suspect and both she and the reader are pretty damned sure all along that the suspicions are unfounded.
But the longer a series goes on, the harder it becomes to juggle all the minor, occasional, or recurring characters to everyone's satisfaction. In addition to Timmy, characters who have not necessarily appeared in every book since they were introduced have included Meg's cousin, Horace; her sister, Pam; her nephew, Eric; her grandfather; Caroline Willner (her grandfather's friend from the animal sanctuary); Clarence Rutledge (the biker vet); Mrs. Fenniman (Mother's good friend); Dr. Smoot (the claustrophobic ME); Michael's mother; and probably several others who have escaped my mind. Whenever I start a book, I'm always faced with a choice--a whole bunch of choices, actually; one for each of the minor characters--do I bring them in? Do I need them to help tell the story I'm writing? Is it logical that they would be there in the time and place where it takes place? And if they're not there, does the reader need to know why? I figure that if they live with Meg and it would be surprising for her NOT to see them over the course of the day or two in which the book takes place, I explain. If she could go a few days without seeing a character and not fret, I let the reader assume that character just doesn't happen to be in town at the moment.
Of course, this may seem comfortable to me because as a reader, I tend to be annoyed when authors OVERexplain the absence of minor characters, especially if I haven't read the previous books in the series or read them long enough ago that I don't even remember the characters in question. So I prefer to err on the side of underexplaining. Or explaining the eventual disappearance of a character--temporarily or permanently--within the confines of the book in which that character appears. In The Real Macaw, from the very start Meg doesn't say that Timmy has come to stay with her and Michael permanently--she makes it clear that he's only staying with them until his mother is in a situation to take him back. Meg says "We were hoping to get word any time that her posting in Germany would be fairly long-term, which would mean Timmy could join her." I wasn't sure at the time whether I would want Timmy to appear in the next book, so I left that open, but assumed that the "get word any time" would cover the issue if he didn't reappear.
But apparently at least one reader wanted more. If perchance there are a whole bunch of frustrated Timmy fans out there, apologies. For the record, Karen is now comfortably settled in Wiesbaden, enjoying the wine festivals and rejoicing in the fact that she has found an excellent Waldorf or Montessori school for Timmy. Should I ever want to bring Timmy back for a future book, I will have Karen transferred stateside and allow her to leave Timmy with Meg and Michael for a few weeks. Or months. Whatever the plot demands.
Perhaps I'm weird, but in a related issue, I'm not fond of seeing a canceled TV series wrap up with a grand finale episode in which all the good characters' wishes comes true while the villains' worst nightmares are realized and every single question you ever had is answered. I'd really rather think of the characters as just continuing to lead the lives I have enjoyed watching, only doing it someplace where I can no longer watch. The Enterprise is still patrolling the galaxy, Buffy is still slaying, and roll call in the Hill Street Station continues to be raucous. In the same way, I like to think of Horace and Rose Noire and Caroline and Clarence as having lives of their own, and sometimes exciting things will happen to Meg while they're off living them.
But how should I handle the desires of readers who want to know what's happening in the lives of the characters who don't appear? I really hate the idea of doing a roll call of the missing with a little explanation about why they're not in the book. Should I perhaps post a blog or a page on my website for each new book, giving people a rundown on events in the lives of my characters that just didn't make it into the books?
Any reasonable suggestions welcome. Because I'm starting a new book, and I don't yet know for sure which of the minor characters will be around and which won't, but I know darn sure whoever I leave out will have at least a few fans.
p.s. Pictures just for fun. Or atmosphere.