Memorable characters–they’re the lifeblood of strong storytelling. Artist, writer, and editor Mel Anastasiou understands that all too well…
Anastasiou is the author of several Stella Novellas, mysteries featuring an unlikely heroine: Stella, the octogenarian star of her Fairmount Manor Mysteries.
Yes, I said octogenarian. Imagine if Janet Evanovich’s Grandma Mazur got smarter and actually did some investigating of her own (instead of merely attending funerals as a hobby), and you’d have a bit of a glimpse of Anastasiou’s protagonist. Here are a few thoughts about how I think the writer makes her such a memorable character:
1. Create an unlikely heroine in an unexpected setting.
Stella is 82 years old and in a nursing home–the Fairmount Manor Care Home. This is not the sleuth you’re expected to find in the next mystery you read, and certainly not where you’d expect to find one. It’s a pleasant surprise and a shock to the system all at once.
2. Develop pathos.
We’re instantly on the side of a senior citizen; we’re going to cheer her efforts whatever the case. She can be tough and stubborn as she does her sleuth work, so having pathos firmly in place before the conflict serves the author well. It helps make a connection between writer and reader. Besides the age and the setting, what also adds to the pathos is the fact that, as the narrator ages, she struggles with issues of memory as well, creating somewhat of an unreliable narrator. We want her to figure out the case despite all the obstacles she faces.
3. Reveal a bit at a time.
New writers are tempted to tell everything up front. Anastasiou gives us a flash of backstory in a single line early in Stella Ryman and the Case of the Third Option:
…not only was Stella eighty-two years old, but she had lately sold her home and a lifetime of gathered possessions and washed up at Fairmount Manor Care Home in such a state that she would have bet her remaining seven pairs of socks that she’d be dead in half a year.
We KNOW this woman and some of the issues she struggles with, all in a single line of writing.
4. Pay attention to objects the character interacts with.
In every mystery, there are objects stolen or dead bodies or both. In The Third Option, that’s also the case–there is a missing coin of great value and missing thousand-dollar bills. However, other objects are important in showing the mindset of Stella herself. Anastasiou includes details of a black suitcase Stella doesn’t recognize as her own (hers from years ago was brown), and of a desk Stella is convinced at one point is hers (but is really the Nursing Home Director’s). It shows the tendency of the narrator to blur the past and present, slipping from one to the other easily.
5. Bring in other characters to act as foils.
Early on, Anastasiou introduces another character, an eighty-eight-year-old woman “with grubby bare feet and a single streak of white in her mad Medusa hair.” Notice the artist Anastasiou at work here–in a single stroke, she paints a portrait of a new character, and she uses Stella’s thoughts and interactions with her to draw out more of the protagonist’s traits. Later, Stella even enlists the help of another blind resident in helping her solve her mystery. More pathos, more laughter, and more to love about a woman who will enlist the help of anyone she thinks might help her in her cause.
6. Make sure you know what a hero is.
Many people think of Hollywood “heroes” like Rambo or Rocky who are 100% tough and go into any situation completely without fear. That’s not being heroic. Bravery involves taking action despite fear, despite the odds being stacked against you. A good story has a reluctant hero, like Stella:
I don’t belong here. I’m not ready to be here.
I’ve gotten myself into the wrong lineup entirely.
Before tackling the problems of her nursing home world, Stella is forced to confront herself and her own attitude. Internal conflict before external conflict. It brings readers inside, and then all the action that follows feels like it’s happening to us as Stella learns more and more.
7. Use dialogue wisely.
Without spoiling the mysteries involved, by the end of The Third Option, it’s another character, the blind one, Thelma, who in a challenging tone, says it like it is:
I guess you think you’re some kind of hero now.
Guess what, though? The character is talking about something entirely different, separate from the mystery Stella has solved. But in using this language to describe a fairly innocent situation, the writer uses direct presentation effectively. Stella is the hero, but not because of the incident Thelma’s thinking of–it’s because of her desire to set things right, to fight for the underdog, to bother to take the effort when others don’t or won’t.
Overall, it adds up to a character we love to be with–and for a mystery series in particular, that’s important. After all, we’re going to want to read the next tale asap. Luckily for Anastasiou’s readers, that’s all too easy–two Stella Novellas, Stella Ryman and the Case of the Third Option, and Stella Ryman and The Poison Pen Affair: A Stella Novella are available in issues #1 and #3 of PULP LITERATURE !
Enjoy the read, and then…
Think of a setting you know well and a person one might find there…but then have them doing something readers wouldn’t expect. See where it takes you…