Writers of the Lost Arc

The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention, or Bouchercon for short, is coming up this week in San Francisco. It’s a good time for writers to gather with readers and colleagues, yak on panels, talk about writing, the business, sign books.
And hear things.
I always enjoy listening to Lee Child. He’s got this great English accent and droll delivery, and says things that are usually contrarian and funny.
At last year’s conference, Child was on a panel when the subject of character change came up. A constant drum beat in fiction classes and books on writing is that your character must change in some way. There must be a “character arc.”
“Why?” Child asked rhetorically. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
And I do love a good Reacher.
Then another of my favorite authors spoke. Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed convention. The Harry Bosch books are the best series maybe  . . . ever. Connelly spoke about his decision twenty years ago to have Bosch age chronologically. So in each book Bosch is about a year older.
And that means he changes. He has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! It’s still going on and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a Lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and strengthened.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So let’s talk about what you like in a series character. Do you want to see development over the life of the series? Or would you rather be able to pick any title at random and have it be pretty much the same—only enjoyably different?
What are the hallmarks of your favorite series?

15 thoughts on “Writers of the Lost Arc

  1. Jim, I’m with Lee on this one. I want consistency in a series character. If I enjoyed the first book, I want that same character in the fifth or tenth book. They can mentally grow and adapt to the times all they want, but they should remain at a constant level to entertain me, the level I liked from the start. Dirk Pitt is a great example. When I read Clive Cussler’s first thriller, THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER back in 1973, I immediately became a Dirk Pitt fan. Twenty thrillers and 35 years later, I still am. Dirk is older, but he’s still the guy I came to count on for thrilling entertainment back in 1973.

  2. On the age thing, Joe. Scudder had to deal with it in the Lawrence Block series. I think that’s one way to keep a series grounded in a little reality.

    I’ve not read the later Kinsey Millhone books. How is Grafton handling that issue? Anyone know?

  3. I like the lead character to become stronger as he or she deals with adversity. When a character fundamentally “changes” in some way, it sometimes rings false to me, as if the writer or screenwriter is following some kind of formula. That moment of “Oh, I was completely wrong before, now I see the light,” doesn’t usually work for me. I just saw “The Social Network,” and I liked the main character, who is Facebook’s founder. He may have a few regrets by the end of the film, but basically he remains as ornery and irritating as he was in the very first scene.

  4. Kathryn, that’s an interesting take. You’re right, of course. If there’s going to be fundamental change, it’s got to really be justified organically. ON THE WATERFRONT is a masterpiece in this regard. Terry Malloy (Brando) does a complete 180 by the end, but you see the inward pressure on him every step of the way.

  5. Actually haven’t read that many series books. As a kid reading the Hardy Boys I depended on them remaining the same–I hate it when they even try to “modernize” them. The Modern Clues brothers version, where they call Aunt Gertrude Trudy and have a parakeet that poops all over the house just makes my teeth grind. THat is NOT consistent.

    As to series books for adult readers–I think it would just depend. Would I want them to change drastically? No. But it seems some change would have to be inevitable. But maybe not.

    It always boils down to the skill of the writer. If they’re good enough, they can convince me of just about anything.

  6. I agree with Lee Child – Reacher & his folding toothbrush, perfect.

    I’m a huge Vince Flynn fan & in the last book, Mitch Rapp, now a bit older & stationed in DC, has lost some points in the badass department.

    Cussler handled Dirk Pitt’s aging by introducing Dirk Jr – & it worked, though I don’t care for the work where he has a co-writer so much.

  7. I’ll follow a series closely, and get more pleasure from the reading, if the character grows stronger through the series. I like the idea where a character–an ordinary Jane or Joe– gets caught up in something and discovers to his/her amazement that if strength of will and even brutality are called for, the character will come through.

  8. (I’m writing this with the disclaimer that the only series I’ve read with static characters is Jeeves the Butler, so if I make any incorrect assumptions, please set me straight!)

    It would seem to me that the type of series that can support a static character would have to be a simple series of similar stories (Law and Order, Sherlock Holmes) as opposed to a series with an arcing plot line. Is it even possible to have a simple story repeated over and over that has an evolving character, or a wildly changing plot arc that has an unchanging character?

    It would seem to me that the discussion is about apples and oranges. I like them both for different reasons, and they each have a place in my fruit bowl. Or they would if I owned a fruit bowl, but I’m not quite classy enough for that yet. Getting there, I think.

  9. I’ve been addressing this in my own series, and I find myself splitting the difference, with Jonathan Grave remaining consistently stalwart (if somewhat conflicted), while the subjects of his rescue efforts experience the more dramatic story arcs.

    John Gilstrap

  10. For a series like John G’s, having a “stalwart but conflicted” hero still leaves open the possibility of a future novel where he’s forced to change in a fundamental way…then he can get on with his heroics.

    What do you say, John? Maybe Jonathan can lose his memory and work at a Dairy Queen for awhile.

  11. Can’t you have the best of both worlds? Take James Rollins, one of my favorite authors. In his Sigma series, every story has the same atmosphere, same type of feel. If I want a James Rollins book, I’m not going to be suprised by how it reads. He’s consistent. But the characters do change, which is a big deal. In “The Judas Strain,” Grayson Pierce grows closer to one who’d been an enemy all his life. His best friend disappears, his heart is hardened by all these things. And Monk, his friend, goes from being a goofy, slightly irresponsible agent to a husband and father with a lot of responsibility, who still has a good sense of humor.

    Things can stay the same and change at the same time.


  12. I think this can go either way (and I like both Reacher and Bosch), but my preference is for the author to inject some natural change. If a character goes through experiences and doesn’t come out a little bit stronger, more enlightened, or skilled, what’s the point?

    I think Sue Grafton has done a good job of maintaining Kinsey Millhone’s core, while allowing her to grow and learn from her experiences.

    On the other hand, I find myself frustrated that for all of her misadventures, Stephanie Plum is no better at bounty hunting than she was twenty books ago. The stories are fun, but are losing their sparkle for me since the MC never learns or matures, even as those around her do.

  13. Brayden, yes. Other characters surrounding the Lead can be the ones who change. There’s really a continuum here, not an either or.

    Gwen, thanks for the update on Grafton, and the point about Plum.

  14. I wonder about that with my own characters some times. Should I have them seem endlessly younger? Should they age naturally? How should they age and mature? Like you all have said, there are good examples of both and I think it depends on the character and the situation. I think aging every year, accurately, would be tough, but never changing isn’t exactly natural or realistic either. I’ve always supposed that writer’s license comes in to play here where a characters year or career span isn’t exactly measured in real world terms. Even Dirk Pitt didn’t exactly age for more than a dozen books: new scars yes, a little slower once in a blue moon, yes, but he didn’t really mature, get married, or get “too old” for his job until his college graduate twins showed up at his door and Clive’s son Dirk Cussler started picking up the storis. It made for a nice transition. Like everything in writing, there is no perfect way, no absolute No or Yes, it just plain “depends”.

    Does the character need some improvement and need to grow and learn from their challenges, gosh I hope so!

  15. I read a lot of series books. Take J.D. Robb and her in death series for example. With each one the main character Eve grows stronger and wiser. She doesn’t always stay the same. I like consistency in the character but not stagnation. They need to grow and learn and age. With age comes wisdom.

    Will be at bouchercon. Looking forward to it and meeting you all.

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