Managing the Ensemble Cast of Characters
by Saralyn Richard
When I decided to write a mystery novel situated around a weekend birthday celebration at a country mansion (Murder in the One Percent ©2018 Black Opal Books), I wasn’t fully aware of how challenging it would be to populate the party with a slew of guests and keep the novel moving for readers. To start with, I wanted to have seven couples on the guest list, plus a single, for a total of fifteen characters. Some would be the hosts, one would be the murder victim, one or more would be the killer(s), and others would be the suspects. Fifteen seemed like a fine number until I started to write the first few chapters.
For one thing, the party guests, like most in real life, were quite similar. Most of them had been to college together, and most of them had careers in the same field of endeavor. They were all members of the wealthy one percent, so they all wore expensive clothes and jewelry, enjoyed multiple residences, and indulged in luxurious hobbies. It was fun to pull back the curtain on their lives, but I soon realized a few things:
- The characters were too much alike.
- Readers would have a hard time remembering who was who.
- Readers would have a hard time identifying with any of the characters.
- There wasn’t enough contrast among the characters to make for interesting dialogue, narration, and description.
Once I understood the challenges of managing the ensemble cast of characters, I cut one couple from the book, taking the number at the party to thirteen. What a perfect number for a party that started on a Friday the 13th, a party where someone would be killed.
Next, I created a character bible for each partygoer. It wasn’t enough to document the physical traits of each one. I wanted to give everyone a particular way of talking, speaking, moving. So if a character flipped her hair behind her shoulder or rubbed the material of her pants between her thumb and forefinger when nervous, the reader would know exactly which character that was.
While all of the characters were among the ultra-rich, I gave them different experiences with money, and different attitudes toward it, as well. Some inherited it, some earned it, some had it and lost it, and some married into it. Some were haughty, while others were down-to-earth.
Each of the characters has had identifiable past experiences with the victim, some unpleasant enough to serve as a potential motive for killing him. As everyone comes together to a weekend retreat at a remote country mansion, the reader is presented with a “locked room mystery.” The killer has to be one of the party guests.
Once the murder occurs, the detective and other characters provide plenty of contrast, but by then, the readers have already formed impressions of the ensemble of one-percenters. All they have to do then is buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Award-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer, who teaches on the side. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children worldwide. Murder in the One Percent, semi-finalist in the Chanticleer CLUE awards for best suspense/thriller, pulls back the curtain on the privileged and powerful rich. Set on a gentleman’s farm in Pennsylvania and in the tony areas of New York, the book shows what happens when someone comes to a party with murder in his heart and poison in his pocket. Look for the sequel, A Palette for Love and Murder, at the end of this year. Saralyn has published stories, articles, and poems in a variety of collections and magazines, and she edited the anthology, Burn Survivors’ Journey. A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn teaches creative writing and a literature class. Her website is www.saralynrichard.com.