Keeping a Series Character Alive

A reprise, but on my mind as I’m writing another Elder Darrow . .

I recently came across a tweet from Lawrence Block praising John Sandford’s 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!) 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 five or six books and I’m sure you can point to examples where the character gets—well, if not boring, a touch predictable. After 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.

As a writer interested in a long and happy life for Elder Darrow, the protagonist in Last Call at the Esposito and the rest of the series, 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 reread Extreme Prey 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 suggests 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, anyone?

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4 Responses to Keeping a Series Character Alive

  1. matthewcost says:

    Elder Darrow, anyone?

  2. jselbo says:

    Great and thought-provoking post. I want Dee Rommel to keep moving and “shaking” it up. This was a great read.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post, Dick. I faced a challenge I had avoided for years in my last Thea Kozak book. Knew it was a mistake to let her have that baby…and now how was she going to investigate with a newborn? But, in the spirit of knowing our characters well, I had to go with her natural next direction. She did well considering all the restraints. Our characters become so real to us, don’t they.


  4. Brenda Buchanan says:

    This is such a thought-provoking post, Dick. Thank you!

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