Sunday, July 25, 2021

Characters Off Camera

What do characters get up to when they’re away from the page?

Zoë Sharp

When you write crime, mysteries, or thrillers, you need to create conflict for your characters. They tell you to put your main protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at them. After all, if everything goes smoothly right from the start, it would be a very short—and probably very dull—story.


When Charlie Fox became a professional bodyguard—which she did in book four in the series, having spent all of book three at a bodyguard training school in Germany—I knew I couldn’t always have things going Horribly Wrong for her. Not without her becoming the Typhoid Mary of the close-protection world. So, occasionally I made mention in the narrative of other jobs—the ones that took place in the cracks between books—when everything went like an oiled machine.


The jobs when nothing went wrong, there were no ambushes or kidnappings, no attempted heists, no natural disasters, and nobody gets butchered.


The boring ones, in other words.


Likewise, when a character disappears from one story and crops up again later in the series, I need to know what they’ve been doing in the meantime. They don’t just hang about in cryogenic suspension, waiting to be defrosted and fed back into the plot.


Hence, a character from book two, private security contractor Ian Garton-Jones was running a business that involved a horde of glorified security guards, trying to bring order to a north of England sink estate ravaged by violence and racial tensions. When I decided to bring him back, it wasn’t until ten books later. By that time, he’s progressed to the far more lucrative private military contractors’ market in Iraq.

Hopefully, though, if you read book twelve without having read any of the other books, you wouldn’t feel like you were missing an inside joke. At the same time, I tried hard to reintroduce Garton-Jones in such a way that I wasn’t repeating myself too much for people who’d already met him before.


When Charlie was almost run off the road on her motorcycle by a van driver with more than the usual homicidal tendencies in book five, she sought shelter at the nearby workshop of a bike customising Hell’s Angel called Gleet, on his sister’s farm, with destructive results. I made a return visit to the siblings’ farm two books later. A new reader to book seven might take that crackled stone gatepost as merely a bit of description, rather than a memento of their previous encounter. As was mention of the expertise with a crossbow of Gleet’s morose sister, May…

But, there’s one character who has been notable by his absence from the latest book, and that’s Sean Meyer. He’s been a part of the series—and Charlie’s back story—right from the beginning. And, I confess, that over the course of the series I’ve certainly put him up a number of trees, and thrown the largest rocks I could find at him. He spends almost the entirety of book nine in a coma, and only appears in book eleven in flashback.


Still, readers do ask what’s happened to him. Where is he now? And what’s he up to? I mean, when you’re an ex-Special Forces soldier who’s suffered serious head trauma and realised you want a complete break from life as you know it, what do you do next?


Until recently, I had to say I’d no idea.


But now I know.


And the answer is—something completely different.


After the events in the Middle East and Bulgaria, Sean dropped off the grid. Several military contractors working in Iraq got the idea into their heads that he’d killed one of their own. Not to mention double-crossing a crime lord in Bulgaria with ties to the Russian mafia. The close-protection world in which Sean had always moved with such self-assurance had already become alien to him.


In the back of my mind, I have the idea that Sean is now in the Mediterranean, travelling, sailing, seeing the world not through a gun sight for possibly the first time in his life. He’s trying to keep a low profile, to stay off the radar and out of the way of trouble.

(Yeah, like that’s going to last for a guy like Sean.)


And will he ever get back together with Charlie? Well, never say never. I try not to plan more than a couple of books ahead, and there’s nothing to say their paths won’t cross again. It will be interesting to see whose side they’re on, as and when it does, won’t it?


I think I may feel a new story coming on. When I can leave the UK long enough to do the research, of course.


In the meantime, there are always videos like this one available on YouTube—Tristan Mortlock, aka Super Yacht Captain, taking the motor yacht AWOL into a very tight berth in Portofino Harbour in Italy, with the assistance of the harbour authorities, several crew members, and a drone. Enjoy!


This week’s Word of the Week is horripilation, meaning goosebumps—having the hairs on your body stand on end due to fear, excitement, or cold. From the Latin horrere, to stand on end, to bristle with fear, or to tremble, and the Latin pilus, meaning hair.


  1. These days, my scalp dreams of horripilation... to no avail.

  2. Very interesting, Zoe. I guess we have continuing characters and ones who come and go in one book. But we often think about bringing back old favourites...

    1. I have brought back one or two who really jumped out at me, demanding more room than a single book would allow. Others seemed simply to fit.

  3. You know, Zoe, how little I plan ahead. But people do show up, so unexpectedly sometimes that it seems magical. I knew the main characters before I started the series, but minor players pop into the story. And then, often it seems, return when a later story need them. I am always, well, almost always glad to see them!

    1. I know what you mean, Annamaria. When I first brought Charlie Fox's parents into the series, they were always supposed to be bit-part players. Eventually, they ended up being the main players in THIRD STRIKE. Other characters I have wanted to bring back, but the time never seems to be quite right.

  4. Hi Zoë, I have a few bad guys (of many genders) who keep prodding me to bring them back. I mainly resist, but some I truly miss. As for the video, it's like a home movie over here on Mykonos with all the super- and mega-yachts grabbing every available berth. HOWEVER, what really wows me is watching the ferry captains swinging their mammoths around in the midst of 6-7 beaufort seas to place their stern flush up against the docks, and holding in place to unload and load before heading off to the next island and a repeat of their little ballet. Don't you just love these sea dancers?

    1. Yes, sometimes the experience of people as they perform a particular task is so palpable you can almost taste it.