Wednesday, October 24, 2012

To cut or not to cut

Barbara here. I am writing today about an unusual dilemma faced by authors who write long-running series. That is, what should we do with the excess baggage and characters that a series collects along the way? My friend and blogmate Tom Curran got me thinking about it when he mentioned his difficulties moving ahead with his latest Inspector Stride novel. He had an interesting backstory and characters in mind but was finding the plot unwieldy and wondered if he shouldn't throw the whole idea out in favour of a fresh book. His dilemma? He was having trouble letting go of the stories and characters, because they were so rich.

We writers do get attached to our creations. The characters, even minor ones, become part of our lives; we talk to them daily and conjure up all sorts of conflicts and horrors for them to endure. Over a long series, their lives and their histories become more and more complex. In the courses of nine books, I have not only put Inspector Green through the wringer, but his colleagues Brian Sullivan, Sue Peters and Bob Gibbs as well. And I have come to relish the trouble his daughter gets up to, each adding a gray hair to Green's head (who doesn't want to relive their teenage rebellion through the actions of their characters?), and have loved watching his young son grow and his wife struggle to understand and accept the flawed but very special man she married. His father, especially, has a warm place in my heart.

I should note that writers are not the only ones who care what their characters are up to. I get mail advising me what to do with the daughter, wondering why the wife doesn't throw him out, and threatening me with bodily harm if I kill off the father.

Yet sometimes, something has to give, lest a series get bloated with characters who have outlived their usefulness and whose struggles begin to get stale. Lest the series, God forbid, starts to repeat itself! Or lest new conflicts piled upon conflicts become positively Shakespearean in scope, as happens in soap operas and in too-long-running TV series, making the whole series laughable. How many death-defying accidents can one character endure, how many divorces, remarriages, deaths..?

Sometimes an author just has to clean house. Who to keep and who to throw to the wolves? How to shake things up and give the series a needed renovation without destroying the essence of its appeal? I am facing that dilemma as I write the opening chapters of the tenth novel in the Inspector Green series. Ten novels! When I started, I never thought I could endure ten! Only by adding and taking away characters, by shaking things up and by having complications evolve and change, have I managed to sustain the series to this point. There were readers horrified at what I did to Brian Sullivan in This Thing of Darkness (I was pretty horrified too). Other readers were askance when I contemplated adding another child to Green's life. Wait for The Whisper of Legends in April to see how that goes.

Sometimes authors take a less drastic approach by simply promoting or transferring characters out of the series, or by sending them on a holiday for a book or two, by which times both author and readers may welcome them back like long lost friends. At other times, authors take a scalpel to the heart of the series. Elizabeth George killed off Inspector Lynley's wife and Giles Blunt killed off John Cardinal's wife. These are not spoilers; they are in the jacket blurbs. That certainly gets rid of characters and provides a whole new emotional landscape to be explored with the principal character. When I briefly contemplated killing off Green's wife, I realized it had been done before. What could have been a gut-wrenching twist to the series risked being a cliche instead.

So far in my latest work-in-progress, both the junior detectives with the trouble-plagued love story have made appearances, as has Green's wife Sharon. But there remains the dilemma of his father, who has made only minor appearances in the last couple of books. I have loved him dearly since Once Upon a Time, for he brings out the tender, filial side of Green. But at nearly ninety years old, frail and ailing, there may come a time when Green, the readers, and I need to say good bye. How will I let him go, and when?

I don't know yet. Sometimes I never do, until the shock occurs.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, another dilemma is whether to move forward in time or keep the series in the same time frame I like Craig Johnson's series where the movement forward is not all that dramatic. Louise Penny's characters do not age much. Right now, I'm comfortable with that format.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I like series that move forward, but they can't move too fast because otherwise you get stuck with a sleuth who should be retired... or dead! I usually advance at about 6 months fictional time for every year or two or real time. Growth makes the series interesting.