Characterization in THE CORONER’S LUNCH
Yesterday, I’m happy to report, I finished revising Part 1 of the WiP. It took two fast passes in 34 days, averaging 7.5 pages a day. At 26,000 words and 127 manuscript pages, it’s longer than in any previous drafts, partly because I’ve moved three scenes out of the much-too-long Part 2 into Part 1 where they belong since they provide back story on the villain.
Before I start the next part, I’ll get some readers for Part 1 and also do some other things, like probably buy a new computer to replace my current antique, obsolete long ago. I’ll talk more about those “other things” when I’ve done them.
In revising Part I, I paid attention to characterization. I’ll continue to do so in revising the rest of the WiP because I completely changed a set of characters halfway through the previous draft and because characterization doesn’t particularly come easy for me.
Among the authors whose books I’ve read so far this year, no one presents characters more skillfully than Colin Cotterill.
THE CORONER’S LUNCH introduces Dr. Siri Paiboun. At seventy-two, Dr. Siri hoped for retirement, but instead he’s been appointed Chief Coroner of Communist Laos, a dysfunctional country like James Church’s North Korea. Every Friday, Dr. Siri must report to his boss, Haeng, an administrator so young he still has zits.
Haeng’s face is an example of one of Cotterill’s indeliable, compact characterizations. Whenever we see Siri reporting to a young man with a bad complexion, we know exactly who he’s talking to.
Of course, as the protagonist of a mystery series, Dr. Siri gets the full treatment. (FYI: The latest installment is SLASH AND BURN.)
We first meet the coroner in a scene. Right away, we know the old guy has a sense of humor as he muses that probably Haeng would like all deaths Dr. Siri deals with declared due to “heart failure,” even though the current subject bled to death after his legs were accidentally cut off.
Cotterill soon tells us that Paiboun has been through so much in his long life that he’s always calm and never gets angry.
On page 5, we get to see the protagonist physically. He has an unusual build and walk, and even more unusual eyes. They’re bright green, partly hidden by his bushy eyebrows, and they make Haeng so uncomfortable that he doesn’t look into them even once during the meeting. Even Dr. Siri doesn’t know everything there is to know about his eyes, but later in the book during a mystical adventure into the jungle, he finds out.
Cotterill slips in more physical details on pages 5 and 6. The doctor’s hair is white, not black other older Laotian men have because they use Chinese dye. He wears old brown sandals instead of the regulation black shoes that also come from China and thus support the Chinese economy. His white shirt has a button dangling by a thread.
After the meeting with Haeng, Dr. Siri goes home and eventually to bed, and we’re introduced to his dreams. They’ve always been strange, especially when the recently deceased appear in them as the poor guy who lost his legs did that night.
So in fewer than ten pages, Cotterill paints an indeliable, compelling portrait of his series protagonist.
Besides the back stories of how Paiboun came to be a doctor and much later, the Chief Coroner of Laos, there follow shorter introductions to Auntie Lau, who fixes his special sandwich for lunch every day; his assistant, Dtui, an overweight fan of Thai movies; and the morgue assistant Geung, who has Down Syndrome, but nevertheless knows correct autopsy procedures. At lunch on the river bank, we meet Dr. Siri’s old friend Civilai, excitable, short, skinny, bald, with big glasses. Civilai looks like a rickshaw driver instead of the politician high up in the Communist Party that he is.
Other memorable characters abound in THE CORONER’S LUNCH. And using Cotterill’s example, I introduced a new character in Part 1 of the WiP through clothing, walk, build, and the character’s inner life, especially his fears shown in his dialogue. What fun!
NEXT TIME: A change of pace
Meanwhile, Happy Reading and Writing, Best, Juliet