There’s an old saying in the acting community: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Having played many small parts during my years acting, I like to think that the statement is true. When I began to write novels, that belief in the importance of the supporting cast stayed with me.
I never questioned who would be the leading lady of my mystery series. Calli Barnow presented herself to me almost fully formed; name, strengths and weaknesses were pretty much intact. The real fun started when I had to create the people with whom she would associate on a daily basis, as well as those she would only run into once or twice.
Since the novels are set in Toronto the possibilities for interesting and diverse people are endless. One character who joined Calli near the beginning of Red Rover is her best friend and occasional workmate, Dewey. He is a complex character who continues to evolve with each subsequent novel. Originally from Jamaica, he immigrated to Canada in search of sexual freedom. Having found it, he then went on to become a popular drag queen. Dewey brings much of the comedy to the lighter parts of the novels. Rather than taking the focus away from Calli, he contributes, as he should, to her development. He is one of my favourite characters, and has become a favourite of readers as well.
Another character I really enjoy writing is Calli’s old girlfriend, June. She also appears from time to time in all the novels, due not only to a lasting friendship, but also because she is a detective sergeant on the Homicide Squad. Although she often proves invaluable in Calli’s cases, it is once again her relationship with Calli that is important. June knows Calli better than most, so can help the reader to understand and even accept Calli’s quirks and inconsistencies.
Some people who have been the most memorable to create make only brief appearances. In the development of these individuals, I have found freedom not available with a more central or ongoing character. With a cameo or minor character, I don’t have to worry about a fully-rounded personal history, or take into consideration what that character might be doing in subsequent story-lines. On the flip side, I only have a short time to bring such an individual to life. This necessitates careful but strong choices when it comes to physical and verbal attributes. Some of my favourite bit players are: Old Fred, a Kensington Market local who rides an adult three-wheeler and smokes cigarette butts from the sidewalk (Red Rover); Phyllis Cook, the quirky owner of Fabric Fun, a vintage fabric store in Toronto’s Fashion District (Oranges and Lemons); and Ana Belic, an ageing and bitter short-order cook at the Sunnyside Up Diner (Yellow Vengeance).
Memorable secondary and minor characters are elements I enjoy in the novels I read. It’s gratifying when my readers show similar enjoyment for that aspect of my work. One of the review lines I most appreciate comes from the May 29, 2013 edition of OUTVisions. “Bugg’s real genius though, is in her supporting characters – an actor as well as a writer, she writes with a keen ear for dialogue and verbal tics that, when she’s at the top of her form, let her summon rich, living characters in a handful of lines without resorting to stock images or stereotypes.” I couldn’t ask for more.
The world is populated with such interesting people. Unfortunately we will never get to meet and know most of them. Writers, however, have a unique opportunity to creatively represent the whole gamut of humanity, even if an individual only appears for a page. When I remember this, I feel very lucky.