He has twice won the Shamus Award for Best Short Story of the Year from the Private Eye Writers of America and three times been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his short fiction. His stories have appeared in Best American Noir Stories of the Century, and Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. He is the author of 20 Lewis Cole novels. published by St. Martin’s Press, and is currently co-authoring works with New York Times bestselling author James Patterson. He is also a one-time "Jeopardy!" game show champion, and is also a winner of the game show "The Chase."
The Challenge and Art of the Series Character
A few months ago, my tenth novel in my Lewis Cole series – STORM CELL – was published, and it struck me that the first book in the series, DEAD SAND, was first released in 1994.
Imagine all that’s changed in the world since that time. Back when I was working on DEAD SAND (which turned out to be my first published novel), the Soviet Union had expired just a few years earlier, a new era of peace and prosperity was predicted for the world due to something called “the end of history”, and MTV still played music videos. No cellphones, no GPS, home computers barely coming into the market.
It sounds simple but it’s not. For example, my lead character, Lewis Cole, was 35 years old when DEAD SAND was published in 1994. Now, 23 years later… is he really 58? Um, no, I really can’t see him running around getting into fistfights, doing stakeouts, and putting his life at risk in the pursuit of justice. I think that’s one of the reasons why Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series still remain in the 1980s; that way, she doesn’t have to worry about aging her heroine or stretching her timeline to places that don’t make sense.
And then there’s one of the masters, Robert Parker and his series character Spenser. Good ol’ Spenser. In his first appearance, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT, he’s listed as 35 years old (hey, the same age as my man Lewis Cole in his debut), and also was a Korean War veteran. Fair enough. But Parker’s Spenser novels – before the very able and talented Ace Atkins took over the series – ran up to SIXKILL, published in 2010, meaning that our tough-guy, weight-lifting, two-fisted hero would have been… 75 years old.
So what’s an author to do?
Pay attention, but don’t freak out.
Meaning you should write your novels in their own universe, but try not to connect them to the here and now. For example, I tried to keep politics and current events out of my novels as they came out, year after year. For if I had my Lewis Cole talking about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton in a novel published in 1999, then it instantly dates it for readers in 2005, or 2010, or today. Remember that the passions and politics of this year doesn’t necessarily translate into anything of interest to readers down the road as you – hopefully! – continue publishing.
But that doesn’t mean some things shouldn’t change. If you’re fortunate enough to write a series character, that character should grow and be different with each novel. You can’t have a character remain frozen in amber, unchanging, year after year.
In reviewing DEAD SAND, I see how Lewis Cole then is much different than the Lewis Cole of “now”, whatever “now” means. Lewis is a former Department of Defense research analyst who is the sole survivor of his section – everyone else was killed in a training accident – and to keep his mouth shut, he is pensioned off to a beach community in New Hampshire, working a columnist at a Boston-based magazine called Shoreline.
But he has an urge to make things right, to seek justice, to right wrongs, and as DEAD SAND opens, it’s only been less than a year since he left government service. He’s tired, he’s feeling very guilty at being a survivor, and has troubles sleeping at night and making relationships. He’s also edgy and slightly paranoid about his new life.
Yet in book ten, he’s more relaxed, has grown to love his new community, and he has deep friends and relationships. He has suffered along the way, he’s experienced loss and wounds, but he’s definitely grown. And the same has occurred with his friends and supporting cast members that have appeared in each of the novels.
That’s the most important part, in working with a series character. To keep the reader’s interest, your character has to change, has to grow, has to suffer and move on.
Oh, and how old is Lewis for real?
According to the timeline of the novels and publishing history, he “should” be 58 years of age. But that’s only if you count each novel as a “year.”
Which I don’t.
When asked by readers, I say that each novel takes place within a six month period, meaning that instead of being 58, he’s probably in his mid-40s. Which makes the both of us happy.
Wait, you might say. How can that be? How can each novel just end up as a six-month period of time?
Remember, you’re the author.
You can do anything you want.
So long as it makes sense.