Keeping a Series Character Alive

I recently came across a tweet from Lawrence Block praising John Sandford’s most recent release in the Prey series, a fine police procedural set in and around Minneapolis. With my usual grace for social media, I’ve lost the tweet itself but the essence of Block’s praise was his sense that Extreme Prey (the 26th in the series!)exprey continues to draw and entertain new readers because of the way Sandford has developed and extended his protagonist over that time.

Lucas Davenport might be one of the most fully-realized series character in contemporary crime fiction. His professional roles through the course of the Prey books alone would be enough to ensure a level of interest. He’s been a patrolman, a detective, then a deputy chief with the Minneapolis police department, fired from all of those positions, rehired into vague investigatory slots. He’s been a civilian contractor with the New York PD and the chief of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Between jobs, he winds up in barely-defined political troubleshooting roles for various local and national politicians, including the governor of Minnesota. On top of that, he’s been a game designer, a businessman, and he’s rich enough that he doesn’t even have to work. Or take any crap from the bureaucracy.

The chief challenge for a crime writer creating a series character is keeping him or her fresh and interesting over multiple books, revealing enough to engage the reader without overdoing the backstory and overwhelming the reader, who is reading your book for the story too. Consider your own favorite series character who’s survived 5 or 6 books and I’m sure you can point to examples where the character gets—well, if not boring, a touch predictable. neroAfter a while, Nero Wolfe’s orchids and beer consumption become less about the character than a convenient shorthand for him, a kind of template.

The temptation for a writer (because we writers always have to make ourselves do the hard things) is to let the markers stand in for the characters, instead of developing the character more deeply. I see this in some of the late Parker-written Spenser novels—Spenser’s modes, attitudes, solutions, and repartee haven’t moved all that far from those in The Godwulf Manuscript, the very first in the series.gw ms

As a writer interested in a long and happy life for Elder Darrow, the protagonist in
Solo Act, I’m always trying to figure out what makes a protagonist so interesting that I will even go back and read books I know, just to spend time with the character. I just read Extreme Prey myself and while Lucas Davenport is recognizable both physically and psychologically, he has not staled. Here are some of the reason why:

He owns a rich and varied backstory, starting from the very first book, including stories about childhood friends like Elle Krueger (who appear later as a significant character), about his college hockey-playing days, his roots, and his history with the city of Minneapolis. As the series progresses, the backstory grows to include lovers, an out-of-wedlock child, a near-feral girl whom he rescues and winds up taking as a ward; and Weather, his now-wife, who in an early book saves his life with an emergency tracheotomy. Various partners, friends, and thugs come and go. But the backstory is only presented in places where the story requires it. Sandford does a fine job making these events and people appear naturally over course of the series, as they would be over a life.

Davenport also carries a set of characteristics, physical and psychological, that both identify him and challenge him in every book. He has his scars, of course, but he has a propensity for violence, for rage, a certain vanity about his clothes, an inability to get along with any form of command structure for long. But these are not markers, not only descriptive bits. They work with the plot and Davenport’s character, sometimes to his benefit, sometimes not. They are characteristics, not identifiers.

What makes him believable for me, then, is the full sense of a life lived, as it is being lived. What is front story in one book becomes back story in the next, adding layers of complexity and humanity to the character. His attitudes change—he becomes more politically savvy, spends less time indulging his lustful eye. Friends and colleagues change, get sick, die.

All this suggest something I’ve heard a lot as a writer but maybe never internalized as much as I need to. When you first create a character, especially a series character, you need to know him or her as well as yourself. Before you write the first book you need to know as much as you can. Much of what you know will never appear on the pages but the knowledge will inform the character as you tell his or her story and affect how the plot works with and on the character. And, of course, if you are lucky enough to create and maintain that deep relationship, you may even create a character that endures. Sherlock, anyone? Miss Marple? Travis McGee?

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13 Responses to Keeping a Series Character Alive

  1. Gram says:

    I loved Travis McGee and could not read the last book in the series. I also enjoy Lucas Davenport stories. Of course we all love Miss Marple, don’t we? I also love the Mrs. Pollifax series even when the stories were less than stellar near the end.

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  2. C.T. Collier says:

    As someone writing book two of a series with a husband-wife team as sleuths, I appreciate the insights and ideas you’ve posted here. I’m definitely bookmarking this blog entry, Dick Cass!! 🙂

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  3. Sennebec says:

    Block has done some amazing things with Matt Scudder in that series. Perhaps the gutsiest move was when he killed Matt’s AA sponsor who was wearing Scudder’s jacket. I had to re-read that page three times before I got my head around what happened. I agree that keeping a character growing and changing is a tough, but important effort. Another author who has done an excellent job of letting his protagonist (and his family as well) grow and change is William Kent Krueger in how he’s portrayed Cork O’Connor. Really good post today.

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  4. Skye says:

    Great post. I adore John Sandford as well as many other writers who choose to write their prose in series; unfortunately, many writers tend to write themselves OUT of material. My favorite writers, except John Connelly reached an impasse and their most recent novels have been great disappointments to me. I think there comes a time to have a ‘reality check,’ and move on and away from a series.

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    • Richard Cass says:

      You may be right, Skye. It’s not an easy thing to do and the rewards of keeping a series going, even after a point of no return for the protagonist, are fairly substantial if it’s a successful series. One of the reasons I revere Elmore Leonard is that he never–well, once or twice–brought characters back. More work for himself, surely, but it made for surprises . .

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  5. Great post, Dick! I agree that knowing your characters, particularly your protagonist, is absolutely critical. Writing a growing, changing character is more difficult to do than one might think. Your analysis of how Sandford does it is so well considered. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

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    • Dick Cass says:

      Thanks, Brenda. Lots of fun trying to figure this out . . .

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      • Skye says:

        I loved reading this post as well as all of the replies. I think everyone has something valid to share, and knowing one’s protagonist is extremely important, but so are the other characters that emerge during the course of a series and become more than flat characters, but gain increasing value as the series progresses. Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Decker series has begun to focus on the homicide detective named Milo; Sue Grafton’s landlord Henry and brother and sister-in-law have become quite important as the series continues; the same can be said for Patricia Cornwell and Lisa Gardner’s books. Everything must work in tandem, I believe, and sometimes other characters take on a different role and interfere with the protagonist.

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  6. Amber Foxx says:

    A series where the characters are complex and continue to grow and change and the Navajo mysteries by Tony Hillerman, now carried on by Anne Hillerman. The protagonists have an inner life that gives the mysteries depth. As a reader I’m as interested in Jim Chee, Bernie Manuelito and Joe Leaphorn as people as I am in the crimes they solve.

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