March 16 – 22: “Should series characters change?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The TV series Seinfeld claimed their characters never changed. This week ITW members Jean Heller, Glen Erik Hamilton, Nicole Maggi, Connie Di Marco, Cecilia Ekback, Alan Field and Jack Dewitt discuss whether or not the same rules should apply to characters in a book series.

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hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

 

Ladle to the Grave by Connie ArcherConnie di Marco, writing as Connie Archer, is the national bestselling author of the soup lover’s mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime: A Spoonful of Murder, A Broth of Betrayal, A Roux of Revenge and Ladle to the Grave. Connie was born and raised in New England and now lives on the other coast. You can visit her website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter: @SnowflakeVT

 

Past Crimes by Glen Erik HamiltonA native of Seattle, Glen Erik Hamilton grew up aboard a sailboard and spent his youth finding trouble around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in California with his family, and frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.

 

 

The Forgetting by Nicole MaggiNicole Maggi was born in the suburbs of upstate New York, and began writing poems about unicorns and rainbows at a very early age. She detoured into acting, earned a BFA from Emerson College, and moved to NYC where she performed in lots of off-off-off-Broadway Shakespeare. After a decade of schlepping groceries on the subway, she and her husband hightailed it to sunny Los Angeles, where they now reside, surrounded by fruit trees, with their daughter and two oddball cats.

 

Wolf Winter by Cecilia EkbackCecilia Ekback was born in the north of Sweden; her parents come from Lapland. During her teens she worked as a journalist and, after university, specialized in marketing. Over twenty years her work for a multinational company took her to Russia, Germany, France, Portugal, the Middle East and the UK. In 2010 she finished a Masters in Creative Writing. She now lives in Calgary with her husband and twin daughters, “returning home” to the landscape and the characters of her childhood through her writing.

 

Alan Field, new to the ITW, hopes to make a splash with his first urban thriller, The Chemist, that revolves around a weapon of mass destruction and the person who created it. Alan has written short stories starting from age 10, but this is the first work he wishes to publish. While practicing law for twenty years, Alan fathered four children. He is also an accomplished music composer and arranger who resides in New Jersey.

 

Delicious Little Traitor by Jack DeWittJack DeWitt is a poet, a chronicler of car culture and a novelist. His study of American hot rodding, Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture is included in the Street Rodder Hall of Fame. For three years he wrote the column “Cars and Culture” for the American Poetry Review. One of the columns was chosen as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2010. Almost Grown, his latest book of poems, is about growing up in Stamford, CT. For many years he taught in the Liberal Arts Division of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

 

 

25 Comments
  1. I think a comedy TV series is about half a world different than a thriller. Presumably, in a comedy series, the flaws and idiosyncrasies of the characters are what make them funny, and to have them change would undermine the appeal of the series.

    In the best thrillers, the gut-wrenching experiences the protagonists go through must change them. You can’t go through the hell we inflict on our characters without having an impact on their outlook, their attitudes, and their feelings about themselves and those close to them.

    I wrestled hard with this in writing THE SOMEDAY FILE. A story about a newspaper reporter is a hard sell, an agent once told me, because newspaper reporters are supposed to stay aloof from the emotions generated by the stories they’re covering. They are supposed to be impartial and stoic. Good thrillers have to take a toll on protagonists, but newspaper reporters don’t let that happen.

    Well, I can tell you that after 20 years as a newspaper reporter, that’s nonsense. Newspaper reporters need to keep their emotions and opinions out of their stories, but they can’t avoid feeling them. The biggest story I ever broke, one that made international headlines for months, changed me irrevocably. I just didn’t let my range of emotions show in my writing.

    However, to assuage any agents, editors, readers who still think mistakenly that reporters have to be cold-blood reptiles, I made Deuce Mora, the protagonist in THE SOMEDAY FILE, a columnist instead. Columnists are paid to have opinions and emotions about the subjects and people in their stories. The events of THE SOMEDAY FILE take a huge emotional toll on Deuce, and it shows.

    A big part of the strength and appeal of a good thriller is not only the plot and the suspense and danger to the protagonist, but watching how he or she is changed by the experience. The metamorphosis in the protagonist can be as interesting as the underlying mystery itself.

    You can do this in a book, where you have the time and the space. In a TV sitcom with 18 minutes of actual story time, not so much.

  2. I think it’s less a question of *should* they, than *could* they. Readers have come to expect that lead characters will evolve and grow at least a little over time – the days of The Saint and even Spenser easily maintaining their dogmas across fifty books in a series are past. That presents special challenges for the writer. We don’t want to change what made these characters successful, while keeping the relationships fresh and relevant to their time. Matt Scudder doesn’t use an answering machine any more, and he’s likely only in the middle part of his middle age, even though the character was first introduced in 1976.

    Fortunately, readers are also forgiving. Most will allow that our characters age very slowly, a kind of inverse of dog years. Protagonists can evolve and form new relationships and new loves and suffer loss, without ever aging out of their physical prime. And if that sounds like a kind of wish fulfillment: You betcha.

    1. I agree with Glen, but there aren’t too many of us who will have the opportunity — or the desire — to sustain a series over 50 books. The first in my Deuce Mora series, THE SOMEDAY FILE, takes place over one autumn. The second in the series, working title THE GENESIS FILE, opens the following January. Over that time frame, I don’t have to worry about Deuce aging, and I’m grateful for that. But she will have changed a little, the residue of events in the first book.

      I’ve often heard readers and critics say of long-lived series, including Scudder, Spenser, Lucas Davenport, Jack Reacher, etc., that the books begin to get a little stale and formulaic. Part of that, at least, is due to the writer trying to stay with the cocktail that brought success in the first place. Readers liked one book, and they buy the next one hoping for more of the same. In that respect, I think it’s fine for writers to give only lip service to the aging process, as the late Robert B. Parker did with Spenser. Readers don’t seem to mind at all.

      I mean, who wants to read a Spenser novel with the hero swatting lamely at a speed bag while holding himself upright with a walker?
      j

  3. Seinfeld, Kramer, Elaine and George are funny precisely because they don’t change. No matter how trying or bizarre the circumstances they are hilariously predictable. Surprise is the basis of the joke, but predictability is the basis of the comic character. From Benny’s slow burn to Archie’s prejudices, from Seinfeld’s quirks to Kramer’s enthusiasms we know what’s coming and that’s funny.

    I write about a detective so I’ll stick to that kind of character. With a detective hero it’s a little more complicated than with a comic type. The hero must have a core set of traits and values that identify him, that make him who he is. We know what’s coming and that’s exciting. And it’s more than props like a trench coat, Pappy Van Winkle bourbon or a Baretta. Not that there isn’t a lot of pleasure in recognizing those again and again.

    To keep a series going a private detective should offer the possibility of some change, for some surprises. While the core remains intact, life on the mean streets can and should affect the hero. If the detective doesn’t learn from betrayal, loss, or failure, he or she runs the risk of being an automaton, a mere set of predictable behaviors. In that case the hero remains what Forster called a flat character, describable in a sentence. Following Forster the detective should be more of a “roundish” character, capable of surprise, complexity and even growth. He is not Hamlet nor is he meant to be. Sam Spade is always Sam Spade, but, at the same time, he can both love Brigid O’Shaughnessy and turn her in. Joe Friday, a flat character if there ever was one, is incapable of holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. He is the code.

    The growth of the private detective hero is slow. Sudden shifts are unnerving. It happens over time, not quite glacially, as the hero internalizes the effects of a life lived in the shadows, witnessing how easy it is for people to ignore morals in order to satisfy their greed, their lusts and their penchant for violence. Those characters aren’t usually around long enough to grow very much. They serve a function. But the hero must change ( a little) over time to hold our interest. He is not a saint or a super hero, but a flawed human figure. If the purpose of the detective story, according to Chandler, is “the search for hidden truth,” then the unveiling of that truth should leave at least a few scars.

  4. My first reaction to the Seinfeld statement was ‘Of course, series characters should change. They should evolve, grow, move forward in their lives, follow their individual journeys.’ But then, I started thinking about favorite characters in long-running series — Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Harry Bosch, Miss Marple — to name a wide range. Characters whose essential nature hasn’t changed at all over the years, even decades. They may grow older, perhaps they respond to certain stimuli differently based on past experience, perhaps they are caught in time warps, like Kinsey Millhone, but they remain the same “person.”
    Jack’s right — scars and trauma deepen and enrich a character while his or her core remains the same. That’s why readers come back again and again to a series, a character’s essential being is something readers can count on in a chaotic world.

  5. As a reader, I’m often frustrated when characters don’t change and grow and have abandoned a series because of it. In real life, people change over time, and when a series character doesn’t change over several books (or seasons), I get bored.
    Seinfeld, though, was a little different. Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George were all relatively horrible people. One of the reasons why we loved to watch them was because they did and said things that we maybe would love to do in real life but would never dare to. We got to live a little vicariously through them. But then came the series finale. Remember the outcry against it? The backlash? The disappointment that these characters that we spent years laughing at really hadn’t learned anything in all that time? There’s such an investment in a T.V. series, or a book series – an emotional investment – and I find that when I invest that time and emotion and at the end of it the character hasn’t grown or learned anything, I’m frustrated, disappointed and sometimes angry at the author (or the screenwriter).
    I guess I’m a traditionalist, and I like my heroes to grow along their journeys. I like to be in a completely different place at the end of the story than where I was at the beginning.
    In a way, Seinfeld was a lot of more existentialist than we realized…and it wasn’t until that last episode that we the audience truly understood that. When I watch it now, it’s not the characters that keep me tuned in; it’s the brilliance of the writing and the actors’ delivery of those lines that brings it all together. In the world of Seinfeld, the sameness of the characters works.
    But in a thriller, it’s an entirely different landscape. The main character is barreling towards an inevitable destiny and what keeps me reading is all the obstacles and choices s/he encounters along the way. I want to feel like I’ve come the long distance with them when we reach the end.

  6. This may be a little off-topic, but it’s something I’m curious about. When we speak of changes in a character, what about the personal tragedies or transformations that occur in a character’s life prior to his/her appearance on the page. The first example that pops into my mind is the George Gently series which begins with the murder of his wife. Or The Fugitive, again the murder of a wife. Stories in which the character’s life is irrevocably altered by one devastating event. And now perhaps the character is focused on revenge or solving the crime that personally affected him or her. A character’s “ghost” if you will.
    Does every sleuth need a ghost, an addiction, a personal tragedy as a driving force in crime solving? Or are these merely devices to create a more flawed and complicated character? Any thoughts?

  7. I don’t know if every sleuth needs a ghost, or tragedy as a driving force, but Connie’s is a good question. One of the things that I am trying to do is build on the back story of my detective to answer some questions (like how did he get the name Varian Pike?) that I hope will bring some richness into the character. Some of these questions I ask include how did the sleuth become what he is? What led him where he is? And why? Why does he need to be a detective? Whatever the immediate motivation–revenge, helping a friend, tracking a puzzling mystery–there is something in back of it that helps answer those questions. Just so you all know why I am here– I posted an earlier bio–my new mystery is Delicious Little Traitor A Varian Pike Mystery.

    1. I love that title, Jack! Delicious Little Traitor is a great one. And you’re right. If your protagonist isn’t a cop or CIA or FBI agent it demands a little more finagling to maneuver that character into the investigation. A PI can at least be hired by a client to investigate. In my currently published series my protagonist is an amateur sleuth, so it’s always a mandate in each book to give her a burning reason to become involved.
      Was your private investigator a former cop by any chance?

      1. Thanks. Varian Pike learned to be an investigator in the army during the war. He was in a quasi-intelligence unit in Europe. That background will be revealed in bits and pieces as the series continues.

        1. In my case, the protagonist is a newspaper columnist. One reviewer said she moves through the novel, THE SOMEDAY FILE, like a cop through a murder investigation, and the reviewer is correct. That’s what investigative reporters do. Her name is Deuce Mora, again a name that begs explanation and adds a richness to the character’s backstory. When the story opens, Deuce is afraid that the current newspaper climate will eliminate her job. By the end she’s wondering if she wants to job any more. That’s a major change in her outlook, and a bit of growth on her part, without changing her essence. I think that’s what we’re all talking about here.

          1. Deuce is a great name –I would love for them to meet, but I’ll have to read Someday File to see how they’ll get along. (I’ve gotten a little behind here because my browser wouldn’t open the page)- I’ll try to catch up.
            And Connie, they are dark.

  8. Never having written a TV series, I can’t honestly speak with authority to that particular genre. But having written a murder mystery series (Murders by Design), I can say that as the above opinions state, the essential characters that readers/viewers come to know do not change. Anymore than real life people change. So the characters’ essence remains reassuring similar in book after book, but as life’s circumstances impinge,the main character(s) must respond to them, and in this sense they do change, sometimes dramatically.

    Not their personalities, not their tendency to quick anger, quick recovery, to hatred of violence, to tall blondes, short brunettes, etc., those things remain. But though furious over some injustice, for example, in book three, the hero controls his reaction, whereas in book one, he pounds his fist through a wall.

    One wonderful analogy I heard once is that tides are fascinating because they are eternally the same, yet each one is different. Should characters share this nature? (Almost) always the same, yet somehow (almost)infinitely varied?

    1. That’s a wonderful analogy, Jean — tides eternally the same, yet each one different. I’ll have to remember that. I hold to the view that a character’s essence must remain the same, although s/he learns and matures with every crime and investigation.

    2. Lest someone try to have me committed thinking I’m talking to myself, this reply is to Jean Harrington. I, too, love the tides analogy. If you remember where you heard/read it, would you let us know? Thanks.

      1. I came across the tides analogy while I was teaching English lit at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s from an anthology, Norton’s I think. Sorry not to be more specific.

  9. Totally off-topic now, I appreciate the little math problems I have to solve to post here. Just please don’t let them extend beyond basic addition and subtraction. We are right-brained writers, not left-brained rocket scientists. Still, it’s satisfying to know I can still add a little.
    j

  10. Here’s another question slightly off topic. One of my characters (not Varian) in DLT makes a surprising turn at the end of the novel. I thought I had prepared for the change, but I think I might have been too subtle. I am curious –How do you prepare the reader for a character who makes a kind of right turn at a critical point?

  11. Good question, Jack. On a couple of occasions, I’ve received comments from editors who felt that readers needed a bit more explanation. While I, on the other hand, believed the event/scene/outcome was obvious — but subtle — and that more might be overkill. I acquiesced to their suggestions and filled in a bit more info. In the end, it didn’t hurt anything, but left to my own devices, I would have let it be.
    It’s difficult when you’ve been living in the forest for months, unable to see the trees. That’s why we need editorial critiques.
    In this situation, if you really feel that way, perhaps it’s possible to pick an earlier spot in the ms and flesh out that character with a bit of history or backstory that will raise a questionmark in the reader’s mind that could explain the turn. (Just a thought . . . ) But if no one has questioned or remarked on the character’s actions, perhaps it’s just fine as it is.

  12. Thanks for this. How much or how little to reveal is always a problem. It gets worse when readers reach opposite conclusions about it. I guess sometimes you have to trust your gut.

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