I don’t know about you, but I loved Agatha Christie’s novels as much for the great characters as for the mysteries. She had a way of putting the reader right into the society of the time. Take, for instance, Miss Marple.
She’s elderly and has no visible means of support, yet she is not poor. We think she must be living on inherited wealth, but while she is not poor, she also is not conspicuously rich. She is an elderly spinster who was once engaged, is obviously from a good family, and is godmother to a number of young men and women who sometimes get into trouble and need her sharp eyes to sort out mysteries.
She has a nephew, Raymond West, who must be a sister’s child as the name is different, yet no mention is ever made of Jane’s family beyond him. Did she raise him? She is quite close to him.
She is well-traveled, and can afford to go to Egypt, and to the Caribbean. Miss Marple has close friends in high society. She knows people with hyphenated names and large estates. She doesn’t let wealth or social standing blind her to the true frailties of human nature–she knows that greed and sex are the root cause of nearly every crime.
She owns her own cottage in St. Mary Mead, and it’s not small or mean in any way–she has the ability to hire a young lady to come in and help with the heavy cleaning, although it is difficult to find one who respects the china.
Miss Marple takes great interest in the life of her village, and it is through her knowledge of that life that she is able to solve complicated, well planned murders. Her ability to work out the motives for each suspect is directly related to how their actions remind her of certain people she has known over the years in her village. Be careful what you say around her, because she will know what you did by connecting the dots between what you said and what happened.
All this information about Miss Jane Marple comes out in her conversations with other characters, delivered over the course of an entire book, and yet one feels as if one knows her right away.
In the first full book in which she appears, The Murder at the Vicarage, she isn’t really as likable as she is in later books–she seems a bit of a gossip, and rather mean-spirited at that, always expecting the worst of people.
But over the course of 12 books she evolves, and so does our knowledge of her–or does it?
She is genteel, slightly nosy, very comforting and she is on to you–so don’t even think about doing it.
What I have learned from Agatha Christie is that memorable characters grow on you over the course of the book–they are not delivered fully formed on the first page. They are intriguing and we don’t always know what they will do next. There is a hint of mystery about them, and at the end of the book we want to know more.
This sense of intrigue is what we want to instill in all our characters, whether we write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, pot-boilers, or cozy mysteries. If you think about your own experience in life, once it is apparent that you know everything there is to know about a person, they cease to intrigue you. It is the complexities of your friends that keep them interesting, the little things you never knew that amaze you when they are revealed.
Developing a character, deploying just enough information at the right moments to pique the reader’s curiosity is a balancing act, and I’ve come to believe that not everyone can do it with finesse.
Revealing the character over the course of time, and allowing them grow is crucial to keeping the reader’s interest. I think this can only happen if the author has a true understanding of who their character is. This person must be fully formed in the author’s mind so that when they emerge on to the paper they have a sense of realism, as if they are someone the reader would want to know.
Miss Jane Marple was modeled on Agatha Christie’s step grandmother, and on her Aunt (Margaret West), and her friends. Observing these sharp old ladies taught Agatha how a little life-experience can cut through the smoke and mirrors to the truth of people’s’ motivations rather quickly, and that they were often correct in their sometimes mean-spirited assumptions.
I find that doing a small biography of my characters for my own records helps me to understand my people, and while I generally write in the genre of fantasy, people are who they are regardless of the setting you place them in. Characters will react and behave a certain way depending on their history and values. Some are brave, some are lucky, some are stupid beyond belief, but the ones who keep you reading are the ones who still have more to reveal about themselves when the last page has been turned.