It’s tough to write a character who springs to life, leaps off the page and lands in the hearts and minds of readers.
It’s even tougher to write a character who sustains her (or his, but I’ll use the feminine pronoun here to avoid the his/her awkwardness) energy and readers’ interest throughout a sequence of books.
That’s been my challenge in two mystery/thriller series, so far. And here is some of what I’ve learned:
1. Characters can evolve, change and grow over time.
Some of the greats like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle didn’t seem to bother with this: Sherlock Holmes never really ages or changes, nor does Hercule Poirot. And Miss Marple? Well, she’s as steady as a battleship. These characters stay the same, getting plucked from one mystery and dropped into another, moving from location to location, crime to crime, basically immune to time and the effects of their experiences.
By contrast, I find it difficult to keep my characters locked in to a single phase. Like other people, they learn as they go, and their learning alters them. They become open to/closed off from new relationships. One becomes traumatized and develops PTSD. Some marry or divorce, have families. They get older, and their priorities and perspectives change with time.
Even so, each book can stand alone, partly because each finds the main character—like an actual person–in a definite situation or stage of life. The reader of each book in the series is meeting the character anew, instead of seeing her as predictable and stagnant and just exactly as she was in preceding books.
2. In each book, characters can reveal new sides of themselves.
A series of books is, in many ways, like dating. The first book (or date) isn’t going to/can’t present everything there is to know about the protagonist (or date)–It’s mostly going to introduce her and put her in a predicament (or relationship).
But each book (and date—you can continue the analogy on your own) allows her to display part of her backstory, presenting additional aspects of her life. Her childhood. Her parents and/or siblings. Her prom date. Her most embarrassing moment. Her biggest accomplishment. Her personal paradoxes, contradictions and quirks.
Book two, for example, might explain how she developed her hobby of pigeon raising. Or her fear of high fashion. Her talent at the trombone. Her love of linguine. Her passion for pigeons. Her fascination with physics.
Whatever qualities you’ve given her, each consecutive book exposes readers to new segments of her life and personality. It twists the character into a new position, so readers see her from a new angle, getting to know her better. As the series progresses, the protagonist becomes fuller, more real. And, hopefully, her relationship with readers deepens.
3. At some point, the character will speak.
When you’re writing a series, you’re going to live with your protagonist for a long time. In fact, you may spend more time with her than with your three-dimensional, breathing, tangible companions. Much like a demanding child, she might begin to intrude into your other interactions, interrupting your activities at inconvenient and unpredictable times.
That may sound far-fetched, but, trust me, it’s true. Characters can nudge you awake in the middle of the night, start jabbering while you’re in the middle of a conversation, blather when you’re balancing your checkbook, burst in on an intimate moment with your spouse, distract you while you’re driving. They will try to take over your work, suggesting a new escape route for their current crisis. A new outcome to an argument. A new plot twist. A new villain. A new bit of dialog. A new romance.
This expression by the character is to be expected. But the point is that she is NOT the writer. And the writer must, like a parent, remain in control, not allowing the character to take over and, say, lead the plot off in a direction that will simply let her show herself off. Which is not to say that the writer shouldn’t listen to her– Sometimes the character will be inspired—will have better ideas than the writer. At these times, it’s wise, if humbling, to accept her suggestion, praise her for her contribution, and make manuscript changes. After all, nobody will ever know.
In general, though, it’s important to keep your character in her place. After all, it’s a series. Hopefully, a long one. You’re going to be around each other a lot. And, as in a marriage, you’re more likely to be successful if you maintain mutual respect, separate identities, independence, and a balance of power.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject. I’d love to hear your insights. But for now, I’ve got to run—Harper (my current protagonist) is tugging at me. We’re on book number four and, apparently, while writing this, I’ve left her too long hanging from a cliff.
Merry Jones is the author of the Harper Jennings’ thrillers, BEHIND THE WALLS, SUMMER SESSION (Severn House), and the Zoe Hayes mysteries, THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS (St. Martins Press). She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women who relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories.)
A member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, Mystery Writers of America and The Authors Guild, Merry can be reached at merryjones.com