Recently, Mary Kennedy spoke with Carolyn Hart (Death on Demand series) and Donald Bain, (Murder, She Wrote series) for Mystery Scene about creating long-running characters, complex and appealing enough to stand the test of time. Both these icons in the mystery world have figured out the secret of how to keep readers happy for decades. They graciously shared their thoughts on building such icnoc characters with Mystery Scene.
Mary Kennedy: How do you keep your characters fresh and interesting?
Carolyn Hart: DEATH ON DEMAND, the 25th in the Death on Demand series, was just published last month. Are Annie and Max Darling still fresh? I hope so. If readers find them lively, the answer may lie in my relationship with Annie and Max. Some years ago, my daughter drew my husband aside and said quietly, “Daddy, I’m worried about Mother. I’m afraid she thinks these people are real.” He looked at her in surprise and said, “But they are.”
Donald Bain: Jesssica Fletcher’s insatiable curiosity about the world around her and its people is what keeps her fresh as a character. While she remains the same decent, loving and inquisitive woman, we keep her fresh by placing her in different situations (and places and times) to which she can react.
MK: Do the main characters evolve and change?
CH: Definitely. Even though at the end of every book Annie and Max are always young and carefree on their sea island, they know good times and bad. They discover what it means to care terribly and to fight for survival of love and life. They feel and therefore the reader will feel with them. Life is ever changing. Fictional characters must meet life on its own terms and respond as best they can.
DB: The Jessica Fletcher character never changes, nor does she age over the course of the forty-five books to date in the series, which spans over twenty-five years. What does change are the surroundings in which she finds herself, and the challenges she faces in each book. That’s why “place” is so important to the series. By sending her off to various locales, she must rise to a different set of hurdles and dangers in each book, as well as navigate different cultures and new characters with whom she’s forced to interact.
MK: Do readers want the main character to remain the same?
CH: I’ve not received any feedback on that. Readers read the books for different reasons, but I don’t believe they want Annie and Max to change in any significant way. They seem to enjoy them just as they are.
DB: Our readers don’t want Jessica to change. A running debate between them is whether she should marry the dashing Scotland Yard Inspector, George Sutherland. Most readers like that she’s not married and free to travel the globe. A smaller number would like to see her marry George (and others have long lobbied for Jess to marry Dr. Seth Hazlitt.) This backstory also functions to allow the reader to experience change in her as she debates this issue.
MK: Do the main character’s core values remain the same?
CH: That is at the crux of the mystery novel. The protagonists want to live in a good and decent world and always strive to do the right thing.
DB: One of Jessica’s most appealing characteristics is that while she’s forced to confront prickly situations, including unsavory people, her core values never change and she brings them to bear to whatever situation in which she finds herself. Of course, that she never ages in the series helps us achieve this.
MK: As an author, what are the advantages of writing a series with long-running characters?
CH: Recurring characters mean the author knows the terrain and understands the character’s mores. It can be great fun to chop through the forest and blaze a new path, but there is charm and comfort in following a familiar path.
DB: Having been handed Jessica Fletcher as a character is a two-edged sword. On the one hand we’ve been given a great, full-fleshed character created and nurtured by the wonderful Angela Lansbury, as well as by the writers and directors of the TV series. On the other hand, we have restrictions as to what we can do with the character. NBC-Universal is extremely protective of the Jessica Fletcher character and brand, and for good reason. But it sometimes puts a crimp in what we’d like to see her do, or say at times.
MK: Thank you so much for giving us an insight into your fascinating characters and wishing you both continued success with your series.
Mary Kennedy is a psychologist and the author of The Talk Radio Mysteries and The Dream Club Mysteries for Penguin-Random House. Her latest release is Dream a Little Scream. You can visit her at www.marykennedy.net.