Sunday, February 19, 2012

Going Deeper With a Series Character

Today's post is brought to you by my new boxing story, "King Crush," now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, "Iron Hands," is available FREE. 

Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same "feel" over and over, or deepening and changing?

There are two schools of thought on this.

Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He's not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.

There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn't change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.

At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he's done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.

Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.

In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you'll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn't want to be what she is. The just released Book 2, The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch. And then reflecting on her damaged soul.

Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves' brains) but it's not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.

So here's my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I'm going for "revealing" more of Jimmy in each one. "Iron Hands" was the intro, giving us Jimmy's world and basic personality. Now comes "King Crush."

The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.

Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He's not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.

I started writing these stories because there's something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that's my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.

So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you're writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?


  1. I'll be very interested in hearing reader response to this question. I can't think of any repeat characters that I've read in fiction as an adult. I did as a kid, and those characters were like 007 in that they didn't change from book to book.

    And I like that.

    However, the going deeper and changing over time is also appealing to me too, especially as I contemplate a character I plan to use across several novels and a span of several years time.

    Whichever way you go, it takes a lot of finesse to create a memorable character who can go the distance for multiple novels.

  2. I prefer consistency. Give me a Virgil Cole or Jesse Stone any day of the week.

  3. I like reading series in which the main characters grow and change as the story proceeds. Bernard Cornwall's Richard Sharpe comes to mind.

    Series with a static character lose my interest pretty quickly for the same reason that I can't usually stick with television series very long. If I know what to expect I get bored quickly, because I can guess the story's end before the halfway point and it loses its fun.

    While my books have not really been a series, they are all loosely connected by intertwining characters that show up either in the main or back story of each novel. Mojo Johnson, the Warrior Poet. Mike Farris, the Sniper turned Pastor. Kharzai Ghiassi, the Fuzzy Persian CIA deep cover assassin guy with the oddball sense of humour. My readers always gravitate to mentioning something about that last guy, Kharzai.

    That being said, even though I don't write true series work, I intend to involve Kharzai in some way, shape or form in most or maybe even all of the novels I do. While his personality will grow and change as he ages, the core of his off the wall humour and tendency toward excessive violence will stay the same. In the current book he's gone from totally quirky to deeper thinking and relatively serious (relative to Kharzai's perception of serious, which isn't very serious...unless you're his enemy in which case your dead meat) in a way I hope my readers appreciate.

    Anyway, I like reading series that have the character grow and change as the story proceeds.

  4. As a favourite it would have to be Robert B Parker's Spenser. There wasn't significant change in his character through the series, but there were definite "episodes", where events took a hold.

    In terms of my own writing, "Killer Bytes", was published last month, intended as a first in a series, and interestingly several of the reviews to date have mentioned the characters and wanting to know more. To be honest, my plan is for them to grow over time, and I don't want to rush them in one or two books. Ask me again in twenty years and I'll tell you how I got on!

  5. Great post, Jim. As a reader, I like to see a series character change over time. I feel grounded in that world because that character is still familiar to me. I love a tortured loner type, so yeah, bring on the long story arc.

    In my Sweet Justice series, my two main women change over time. Jessie, my bounty hunter, had been punishing herself for the abuse she survived as a child. It never felt right for her to "act normal" when it came to physical relationships so I have each book peeling back those painful memories with her coming out from the shadows an inch at a time. And Alexa, my vigilante operative, is looking for a meaningful healthy relationship (given the covert life she leads) after she faces the fact that the addictive relationship she had with her boss had been mostly physical. I've enjoyed, and also been tortured, by writing these women's stories with the raw emotion I feel is needed as they move from case to case, but I've received emails from women readers thanking me for keeping their stories so realistic.

    I'm a big fan of Robert Crais's Elvis Cole series. I've seen character growth in Elvis from the beginning & a deepening bond between him & his partner, Joe Pike.

    But I have a question for you, Jim. How do you feel about "aging" your character over time? John Sandford has been doing this with Lucas Davenport IMO & I've lost interest in the series because of it. I liked Lucas single too. He got too domesticated & boring. Sandford peeled away what I liked best in Lucas & he feels "older" to me and not the dangerous bad boy he used to be.

  6. Jim, I tend to subscribe to the first school of thought. If I’m into a favorite series, I consider the lead character to be a close friend, and like a friend, I want to feel comfortable with him or her. That doesn’t mean total predictability. A surprise or two is what makes the character whole and human. But the series character is the constant for me in each installment of the series. For instance, if I pick up a Cussler novel, I know what to expect from Dirk Pitt. Pitt is not going to change, nor do I want him to. He is what he is. The fact that he doesn’t change is what I like about him. No matter what the situation, I can depend on my friend, Mr. Pitt, to do what I expect him to do to get the job done. What makes Pitt appealing is his ability to come up with an original and exciting solution to a unique problem.

    Cotten Stone is the main series character in my first 4 thrillers. At the end of the final installment, THE 731 LEGACY, Cotten is basically the same person as she was when I introduced her on page 1 of THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY. She has learned a great deal about herself over the arc of the series, but her actions and reactions are rock solid through all 4 books. What my co-writer and I did during the planning stage of each book was to ask: What else does Cotten need to learn? The answer helped to develop the plot, but the knowledge she gained by the end of the story only fortified her already-established character.

    In my opinion, a series character should be like a favorite, well-worn piece of clothing. When I put it on, it feels good. And when I take it off, I miss the comfort and intimacy, and I look forward to putting it on again.

  7. I think it depends on the type of story and what role the character plays. While the spotlight may stay focused on the gumshoe, it is sheldom that this is the character the story is really about. He serves as a type of narrator. He sees something wrong with the world and works to set it right. There is no reason for him to change. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson changed very little. The same is true of Miss Marple. Also of Hercule Poirot. But those stories are about the criminal and the victim, not the detective.

    It is different when the story is about the recurring character. That character must change or we have no story. If the character has changed in one book, he'd better still be changed in the next book or we'll wonder what happened.

  8. Interesting article and differing views in the comments. In my opinion, heroes/heroines should change over time. Each new individual introduced throughout the series impacts their thinking or feelings on some level. It does not have to be a major struggle but if they never grow from these interactions, the character appears to be stuck in time.

  9. James, that's a great question. My favorite series character is James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. Burke has walked a fine line with Robicheaux, making changes in his life --- and advancing it chronologically --- while keeping the core elements of his character intact and consistent. Burke has also advanced Dave's age; there was some concern that THE GLASS RAINBOW would be the last of the Robicheaux novels --- Dave apparently having run out of road at the of that book --- though that fear has been relieved by the announcement of the publication of CREOLE BELLE this summer. Go Dave! I like stories about old guys who can still kick ass and take names!

  10. Good discussion! Jordan's question prompted a little further noodling on the issue of aging. I heard Michael Connelly talk once about his decision to age Bosch in "real time." That is, he is 20 years older today than he was in 1992. It has worked magnificently, IMO, but it also presents Connelly with bittersweet challenges, he said. Bosch is closing in on retirement age, for example. How will that affect the dynamics of the story? Connelly wasn't sure.

    Perhaps like Block's Scudder, who also has aged, the added years bring him more wisdom in his pursuits.

    But it also helps that these two authors are just flat out so good that they can render the inner life just as effectively as the outer.

    Jordan mentions Lucas Davenport and not tracking with age thing. Maybe a difference between a Davenport and a Bosch is that the former is more "actiony." More physical. Like Reacher, part of the delight is the kicking butt part. So in that sense, the aging could dilute that part of the experience. What do you think?

    One of the benefits of doing a HISTORICAL series character, which Jimmy Gallagher is, is that I can take whatever time I want. Right now he's in 1955, and I'm in no rush to get him into the 1960s!

  11. Ah, and Joe H. brings up another top notch writer and series. I like it, too, when the "old guy" can still get 'er done when it counts. Kind of like the aging gunfighter in the old West who has to take on one more fast drawing kid.

    That reminded me of a favorite wester, Ride the High Country, dir. by Sam Peckinpah. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott play just such gunfighters, pretty much retired and taking a stinking payroll security job jus to pay the bills (McCrea hides the fact that he has to wear reading glasses, for example). But it makes what happens at the end all the more poignant.

    But then, that was a stand alone experience. Still, no reason it couldn't be replicated in a series.

  12. I love trying to keep characters alive and fresh, but am trying to avoid creating the Keith Richards effect. You know...everyone scratches their head and asks how the hell he is still alive.

  13. C.T. Blaise, I laughed out loud on that one. Excellent!

  14. This is good brainstorming discussion. I have a historical character who is 11 years old when we first meet him, but then I have 3-4 stories planned for him as an adult but there is a gap of maybe 8 years that are unnacounted for in terms of planned stories.

    But I can use that gap in time as I plan those forward stories and anticipate how much change he's going to go through in that time.

    The hard knocks of life will take a toll on him, as they do all of us, but I still want him to be the same guy at heart that he was when we met him at 11.

    All this pondering and the thousands of possible story directions are what make writing so much fun (and sometimes give you a headache!) 8-)

  15. You might be right about action, Jim, but that could be remedied book to book. My turn off with Sandford's Lucas is more about mellowing his attitude and the diminished "danger" factor in the character. This is purely my opinion, but what I initially liked about Lucas changes when you marry him off for too long that he gets domesticated. I also liked that he worked weird hours on his gaming business & kept his hand in that world, but now he sold that off. I feel as if what worked in the beginning has been sloughed aside and I don't know why. I'm sure this is Sanford's way of aging him but it lost me.

    Maybe he could've kept a Keith Richards factor in Lucas. Why IS that guy still alive?

    On Bosch, I really love that series. He ages well and Connelly knows how to torture him. That makes a big difference to me. Bosch has become a richer experience for readers. Equal parts, character driven to plot ratio equals good writing.

  16. I've had a crush on Repairman Jack for a couple of years now. He's F.Paul Wilson's under-the-radar bad guy and world super-hero. Just a regular guy from New Jersey.

    The Mythological Sam series I'm writing will be only three books, but I have Sam changing book to book. He's an evolving super-hero of the very basic kind and doesn't know it or want it, for that matter. It's great fun seeing what happens to jim. Sometimes (most of the time) Sam even surprises me!

    I wish you every success with Jimmy Gallagher's stories!

  17. I deliberately keep Jonathan Grave ageless in the series. We know he's war-weary, and that he's been around the block a few times, but I see no need to nail his age to a specific decade. I know from fan mail, for example, that younger readers see him younger than I do, and that's fine with me.

    In any given book, the secondary characters--the ones Jonathan is saving--develop on a much sharper arc than the recurring characters do. That said, I make it a point in each book to reveal to the reader a little bit more about what makes Jonathan the kind of man he is. One thing he is not is introspective. As he says at the end of HOSTAGE ZERO, those doors in his mind are locked for a reason.

    John Gilstrap

  18. I like both types of characters. Jesse Stone (from Robert B. Parker) stays fairly consistent, but he does grow. By the end of the series, he'd overcome his need for Jenn and had a better handle on his alcohol abuse.

    Eve Dallas (from JD Robb's In Death series) changes slightly from novel to novel, but over the course of the series, it was quite a significant change. She's learned to love and trust other people and deal with her past.

    Stephanie Plum (from Janet Evanovich) doesn't change much at all. She's inept from book one, but she's determined and funny and completely lovable.

    I just love a great character and a great story.


  19. Awesome post! I like a little of each. I like seeing a character carry his wounds and scars from one book to the next, but you have to be careful.

    I quit reading the "Prey" series with Davenport. He kept getting wealthier and less interesting with each book. The same happened with Jack Ryan. Once you are President, character enhancement gets tough. His only choice was to develop superpowers.

    I love the Bosch and Scudder characters. And Dirk Pitt makes my heart go pitty-pat. I think part of it is giving the character room to grow by not giving away too much in the first book. Hint at his past and his family, etc., but don't give it away.

    I am currently reading and reviewing the first two books from Steve Ulfelder (Purgatory Chasm and The Whole Lie). The MC is a former NASCAR mechanic/driver who "drank himself out of a ride." He carried his mistakes from #1 into #2, but managed to make a whole new set of mistakes. Steve is also doing a nice job letting out the backstory gradually. There is a lot more to learn about Conway Sax.

    I love series, but don't like the characters overdone, overdeveloped, and angsted to death. The ultimate "aging character" series has to be Harry Potter and with a few exceptions, JKR handled it brilliantly.

    Loved the first Jimmy short and will be off to add the second!


  20. Picking up on Terri and John G, let me ask another question: How much "interiority" do you like to see? And by that I mean inner conflict and such. I tend to like some of that for complexity's sake.

    Mike Hammer was the hardest of the hardboiled, but Mickey Spillane does have a few sections where Hammer really chews himself out -- he's a killer because of what he went through in WWII, and conflicted and driven at the same time. These passages are compellingly written. I like 'em.

    So what would be the line that makes a character "over angsty"?

  21. One thing that drove me nuts about The Hunger Games was the lack of character growth Katniss experienced. She's exactly the same at the end of book three as she was at the start of book one.

  22. Mari, you bring up one of the most popular series of all time. Yet I've heard people say they were let down by Book 3 (I've only read, and loved, the first one). Could your point be part of the reason?

  23. I actually don't like it when a series character stays the same. It sort of flies in the face of most writing advice to not have the character experience a change from the beginning to the end of the book as well, so it confused me a little when an author choose to keep a series character the same.

    I think in a stand alone it can work if the world changes around the character, and in some cases the character change can be very slight like in Harry Potter. From book one to seven Harry remains mostly the same person, but there's A LOT of change around him, so it works IMO.

    But the characters I love the most, that stay with me the longest, are the ones that I am growing and bleeding with too. Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files springs immediately to mind. Harry doesn't change a whole lot from book to book, but if you compare book one to the latest there's a distinct difference.

    The thing is, I think you can have both. I think with a series character you HAVE to have some consistency, or it will feel like you've broken character. There's a paranormal romance series I used to read until the main character changed too much. She went from holding certain core beliefs and having certain lines she'd never cross to throwing that all away, and never once acknowledging her "fall". I couldn't read the series anymore.

    I think if you have a few core character traits, the character's inner life, and maintain consistency with that, you can allow the character to grow however quickly or slowly without losing the essence of who they are.

  24. I love letting out the interior stories slowly. Using Steve as an example again. In book 1 he alluded to the MC's failed marriage and adult son. In book 2, during a restrospective passage, he had a bad guy threaten the MC's family. I'm hoping in the the subsequent books his son will come into play.

    As long as it's not tortured (he's a killer because of a concocted childhood trauma), I like a MC's past coming back to haunt him.

    I've only read book 1 of Hunger Games. Since I'm not huge on my characters having to "grow" I'm reserving judgment on books 2 and 3. I've seen reviews that complain about "lack of character development" in 2000 word short stories. That's not my be all and end all. I think Katniss changes a lot just in book 1. The scales are lifted from her eyes and she discovers what she is capable of.

  25. Yes. Both. And more, please.

    What you choose to read depends on your mood. Sometimes you want the ageless characters like Dirk Pitt or Batman because you know just what you're getting. It's the equivalent of comfort food.

    But other times we want to see progression. Growth. Maturity. Frodo isn't the same when he returns to the Shire. And as Basil mentioned, Richard Sharpe doesn't stay in the ranks, but works his way up to become a middle-aged colonel with a whole bunch of scars.

    It's fine to enjoy each of these approaches. So yes, both, and more, please.

  26. i enjoy series of both stripes. Like Joe, I feel James Lee Burke handles it perfectly. Angsty and aging regards his surroundings and responsibilities but unchanged in the essential elements of his make-up.
    Connelly and Hieronymus do like wise. An excellent MN writer, Wm Kent Krueger ages his Cork O'connor , changing his world but maintaining his fundamental character.
    Changes occur in all these characters but they are not oversdone...and often more in reaction to unavoidable changes in and around them.
    John - the humor of your new character and the clever word play had me smiling.

  27. I'm with Basil - I like the characters to change like Richard Sharpe. Still the same inherent guy but after all he's been through he's grown and changed...otherwise I find it faintly ridiculous when series characters don't change no matter what is thrown at them.

  28. I was disppointed in book #2 of Hunger Games. It was like Stalone redoing Rocky. It seemed she wanted to lay better groundwork for the formulaic teen love triangle. Anytime you can read book 1 & skip to 2 without missing much.

    As for internalizing, I think less is more. Pepper it in & don't keep repeating the same point. Within each scene, I try to advance the character's awareness from the start of a scene with different points towards the end so it shiws movement in motivation. I think over-angsty comes from repeating points ad nauseum.

  29. I disagree with Mari that Katniss in the Hunger Games was the same throughout all three novels. In book one Katniss is very confused about love, and in book two, she allows herself love. So there is growth there. Unfortunately in book three, the tough Katniss we've all grown to love becomes very victimized. Only in the very end does she have a moment of Katniss glory. The books are about war, and what Katniss is emotionally going through in book three is very valid. But it makes for a frustrating read and it seems, for the most part, her character development regresses.

    I am writing a trilogy, and my MC does have character growth throughout. Originally she was quite passive in the beginning of book one (so she'd have room for growth). But I've realized she has to start strong and interesting and grow from there.

  30. Since this discussion has evolved, I'm reminded of a discussion I had with a panel of YA authors at a signing recently. One author brought up that readers are less sympathetic toward a female MC with flaws then they are toward male MCs, the bad boy for example. I found that interesting.

    We've talked about this on TKZ before. I'm willing to be patient with a flawed MC, but some readers may only give a book 50-100 pgs to cozy up to a character. That seems a shame when an author has a vision of growth for that character & strives for a realistic portrayal.

  31. It depends on what kind of book you're writing. Is it one where the character like a PI or Doctor or Detective, whatever, solves cases each book? Then it's more about the plot and the character change is nominal.

    But if you're writing a series about a character's life journey, then I think the character must change.

    i wrote a series about a character who deals with all the wounds and hurts and troubles of her past and present across three book, the third being a happy story of closure and maturity.

    It would've been horrible to leave her the same.

    Soo... depends on what you're writing, I'd say.


  32. Great topic. Great sources. Mine is Jack Reacher. I'd say that he doesn't change much--but the slow accrual of experience does have an effect, which to my mind is done brilliantly.

  33. James said: Yet I've heard people say they were let down by Book 3 (I've only read, and loved, the first one). Could your point be part of the reason?

    It's likely. That and the third book was just ... flat. I'm not sure how else to describe it. The book was more of the same from book one, and the decisions Katniss made just didn't make sense after all she'd been through.

    Terry said: I think Katniss changes a lot just in book 1. The scales are lifted from her eyes and she discovers what she is capable of.

    To a degree, yes. But by the middle of book three, it just seems like she's lost any knowledge she'd previously gained - and never put any of it into practice.

    Jordan said: It seemed she wanted to lay better groundwork for the formulaic teen love triangle.

    And in the end, the way it all played out, imho, just didn't make any sense.

    Kathryn said: In book one Katniss is very confused about love, and in book two, she allows herself love. So there is growth there. Unfortunately in book three, the tough Katniss we've all grown to love becomes very victimized

    [here there be spoilers]

    One trait experiencing growth isn't the same as overall character growth, but that could just be me. Also, I feel like she was victimized throughout the series. She was a tool - a means to an end. And when she had a chance to do something about all of it, she sat on her rump and basically said, "Nothing ever changes and my opinion doesn't matter," even when the people in charge were asking her what she thought should be done. Who does that?

  34. Thanks to JSB and all commenters for today's discussion. I've really been wrangling with myself on this topic so looking at it from so many angles is a great help.

    Thank you.

  35. In general I prefer characters who change. Not only for series but for single books too. The reason is that in life when one solves a conflict (especially a major one eligible for a novel) he doesn't stay the same. Conflicts change people.
    However, this is not necessary to be change in core values.

  36. As a reader, I don't want to see the character change so much that I end up losing what I like about the series. There was one series that I would have read forever because it hit something that I wasn't seeing. One series did that, where the character became so different that the story lost itself for me.

    Don't paint yourself into a corner with such a big story change. It may sound great for the story now, but what's it going to do to the series five books down the line. Is it going to force you a direction you would have never gone? A particular author made it impossible to kill off or otherwise get rid of two characters. It's obvious now 14 books in that she is tired of those characters, and she cannot get rid of them.

    Linda Adams

    BTW, is the spam so bad that we need these capchas? It's taken me 3 tries to get this post in.

  37. I had this exact conversation with people in my writers' group this weekend. They are reading the second in a planned series of short stories that sound similar to yours, James.

    The main character is a member of what I'm calling the Freak Police. Essentially, he's a paranormal cop. I used the first story to set up his world and basic personality. The second story, and the other three that I have planned so far, will open up his world a little more and a little more. You'll learn more about him in each story and what makes him tick.

    I'm not planning, however, to have him change much. He's a bit of a loner and different from the other guys. It all influences who he is and how he reacts to situations. That's how I enjoy writing him, and for the kinds of stories I am planning for him that's how it works best.

    On the bigger question, I like my main character to be mainly unchanged. I like the old sweater analogy. That's what I want them to feel like. Something that's comfortable and familiar.