Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The magic of series characters

Barbara here. One of the secrets of a successful mystery series is the appeal of its main sleuth. Readers may read one book for the power of its story but they return to read the next one because they have come to care about the characters. Experienced writers think long and hard about the qualities they want when they start to flesh out a new series character. Does the character have sufficient complexity, conflict and room to grow over the course of several books? Can she pique the interest of readers and maintain enough appeal over a long-term relationship? Can readers identify with her and with her particular struggles, foibles and hopes?

In short, will readers care about him? It's an open debate whether the series lead has to be genuinely likeable, but readers have to find some reason to care about his journey. At a minimum, he has to be intriguing and redeemable, and give the readers something to root for.

Perhaps even more important, do you the writer care about her? You'd better; you will be spending more time with her than with your own real loved ones – four to five hours a day for months and possibly years if the series continues. You will probably have more conversations, arguments, break-ups and make-ups than with anyone else. Chances are, if you grow sick of her, readers will too.

Striking the right balance between appealing, perhaps even inspirational, characters on the one hand and superhuman ones on the other is another challenge. Perfection is not likeable. It's not human. It's more difficult to root for and identify with someone who's always brilliant, brave, and strong. Who always knows what to do. That magic balance is trickier to achieve than you think, and sub genres differ in what constitutes the ideal mix. Cozies want likeable, clean-living sleuths, PIs learn towards the anti-hero, and police stories generally reflect the flaws and mixed heroism of real life. Luckily, writing is not static and it's possible– indeed, essential– to shape and refine a series character over successive books as you discover more about them.

When I wrote my first Inspector Green novel fifteen years ago, I knew none of this. I thought through none of this. I never thought the book would be the start of a series; I didn't look much beyond finishing the thing. I dreamed up a character that interested me, started writing, and got to know him as I threw plot twists at him. Michael Green is far from perfect, and there have certainly been readers who don't like him at all, but he has grown over the course of ten books into a substantial, complex, flawed but essentially decent man who rarely wavers from his commitment to justice for victims. By luck, and also by allowing him to grow over the series, I believe I have largely succeeded in finding that balance.

I embarked on the Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads mysteries a much more savvy writer, and since I had a particular task and target audience in mind (the emerging or "reluctant" reader), I tailored the character of Cedric more deliberately to appeal to that target. I wanted Cedric to be a regular guy they could relate to, facing struggles they faced every day. A quiet, unsung hero they could root for. Over the course of three books, his simple character has deepened and his struggles have grown more complex. I enjoy spending time with Cedric, and I believe he still has a lot of room to grow in future books.

I am now thinking about yet another series character, and this time I am taking the time to get to know her quite well, inside my own head, before I take her on any specific adventures. I want to make sure that she has the complex, layered, interesting personality to keep me and readers engaged. I want to be sure I like her enough, her dreams are bold enough and her hopes noble enough that we will root for her. I know I will discover the best of her during the writing process itself, and she will evolve over time as she faces new challenges. No character emerges fully formed from the writer's character sketches. That way lies stagnation and contrivance. But I am now trying for a new balance, between deliberate planning and free-wheeling discovery.

Stay tuned!


Donis Casey said...

When I read a book I like, I find that six months later I can't remember major plot points but I can still remember every detail about the characters.

Aline Templeton said...

So true, Donis! The emails I get are more often about the characters than the plot - and when I think how I sweat to get the plot right ...!