Can Your Character Go the Distance?

A strong trend in the publishing industry is the concept of a series—books that are linked through characters, plot, or world building—with a continuing story line. Many publishing houses read a concept or an author’s voice and like it so much that they want to buy more than one book. And linking the books can also build readership or sustain an author’s readers who are already familiar with their work.

In a blog post on Nov 13, 2010 “What makes a book publisher drool? Can you say series?” Alan Rinzler wrote:

If we smell a potential series in a promising new submission, we try to nail it down with a multiple book contract. That trend is apparent in the numbers of new multi-book deals listed in Publishers Marketplace over the past 12 months, with the greatest number in the following genres:

Top genres for multi-book deals in 2010
Romance – 108 deals
Mystery & Crime – 73
Young Adult – 56
Middle Grade – 53
Science Fiction – 31
Thrillers – 29
Paranormal – 27
(Note: Alan Rinzler is an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons with over 40+ years in the book business.)

So I thought it would be fun to examine ways to create a series character with enough juice to build or sustain a readership. Below are some of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear from you, too.

• Paint a large enough canvass. Create a world that’s big enough to allow a character to grow and surprise a reader with different plot scenarios.

• Give your main character(s) enough emotional baggage & personal conflicts that they can develop and grow from, to keep the series fresh.

• Make the plots in the series challenge your character’s weaknesses or flaws. Conflict is vital for any book.

• Tie each plot to the character’s emotional soft spots and allow the character to learn from what happens to them over the course of the series.

• Add a secondary cast of characters who add value. Make them fun, quirky, and definitely memorable, enough to bring a unique touch to your series. They are especially valuable if they add conflict or reflect on your main character’s strengths or weaknesses. If your secondary characters are effective enough, this can mean spin off potential.

• In any book, plant seeds for a spinoff story line. If the novel takes off, you can capitalize on your germinating ideas.

• Tell the reader enough in each book about the character’s back story to entice them to read your other books, but don’t go overboard with a dump of information that will slow the pace.

• Avoid the formula. If something worked in book #1 in order to successfully launch your series, don’t repeatedly recreate it. Surprise the reader with something new, which will keep your creative juices flowing too. Don’t be so tied into your own success that you’re afraid to surprise your readers.

• On the flip side, don’t “jump the shark.” Surprising leaps in character motivation—just to add shock value without substance or believable motivation—may stray too far from center to sustain your readership. Recognize your strengths and find new ways to hone them.

• Keep in mind that your character may have to age if the series becomes popular. Have a plan for that. Three books may wind up as twenty+.

• Don’t be afraid to dig deep inside yourself to fuel the motives or experiences of your character(s). Making them real is vital in order for a reader to connect with them, especially over a series.

I’d love to hear other ideas, so please comment. What tips can you share on how to create a successful series framework? Or what has worked well in other series books that you’ve enjoyed reading?


16 thoughts on “Can Your Character Go the Distance?

  1. A very succinct list. I can’t think of anything to add.

    And actually it made me think about childrens books–ie. the enduring nature of The Hardy Boys books. In that case, they are the opposite of some of these excellent tips—we don’t really get new revelations, or complex character flaws that are explored, etc. Yet they have endured for some 80 years now as the irrepressible 18 and 17 year old sleuths (talk about having to repeat grades!) 😎

    What the series does have is a strong unit of family and friends, and main characters that their readers wish they themselves were; characters who inspire readers to be and do great things. That said, I don’t think a modern writer could build a series these days on these traits alone.

    But the one characteristic it adds to series characters is a lead or leads who inspire the reader, book by book.

    It is extremely difficult to successfully write series character(s). My hat is off to anyone who accomplishes it.

  2. Good list! I think the main character should have one conflict or issue that “arcs” the series without being resolved until the last book. For example, in my series Kate Gallagher is determined to someday find out who killed her mother.

  3. While stories are built around change, a series must be built on those things that are constant. This is relatively easy with mystery books, such as the Hardy Boys series BK mentioned. The gumshoe often serves as our eyes and ears while the actual story and thus the actual change centers on the other characters. Once the story is over, the gumshoe is still a gumshoe and he hasn’t changed much. We are free to use him in another story. In other stories, individuals may change, but the family or community may remain a constant. Our characters may fight battles in a story that defeat smaller villains, but the big villain, the person or thing that produces these villains is still out there. We could have a story about someone taking down a gang of drug dealers, but the people supplying them with drugs is still out there. In the next book, a worse drug dealer can rise up and take over the previous drug dealer’s territory. He too can be defeated, but the big villain is largely unchanged, until we reach the final battle at the end of the series.

  4. Great list, Jordan. All your points are spot on. My co-writer and I finished up a 4-book series in 2008. We wrote book 1 as a standalone but the pub offered us a 2-book contract to turn it into a series. And then the fourth book closed it out. In many respects, we used most of the items on your list, although not conscientiously at first. But we quickly saw the need for planning to keep the heat on through four books. I think what I would add is to always give your character room for growth. Don’t wrap them up at the end in a nice, neat box with a bow tied tight. We always left questions including an on-going but never-to-be-consummated love interest. And we used the same antagonist in each book. He would suffer a setback, but would always come back with a stronger plan to defeat our protag. And most important: we started each project with the what we considered a critical question: What else does our protag still need to learn?

  5. Hey BK–Good points on the Hardy Boys. Your comment made me think of other series that I like to follow – like Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books. From book #1, Elvis has slowly changed. Crais has made him more reflective nad he challenges Elvis’s life by pulling the rug out of his comfortable existence once in a while. And he’s spun off Joe Pike, his partner.

    I think books like the Hardy Boys have become more about the whodunnit of the crime and not as much on the boys themselves. It’s a comfortable world where mystery lovers can match wits. It’s about the crime more so than the actual development of the boys, otherwise they’d grow up. And like you said, a writer today is expected to do more.

    And like you said, series books today are not easy to write. The attention span of most readers lasts a nano-second. We’ve trained our minds for the block buster movie with flash action scenes and a quick pace.

  6. Hey there Kathryn–Wow. Good point. I will have to add this to my list. I love it. On the TV show, Castle, Det. Beckett has the issue of her murdered mother. And some of the best moments between her and Castle come when he tries to help her with that sensitive issue. It can either get them closer or tear them apart–and it makes for some good moments between them. Great comment. Thanks.

  7. Hey Timothy–Thanks for your astute comment. I love your take on mysteries. A good series character reminds me of my favorite jeans–very comfortable to slip into and you want them to last forever…between washings, of course. Thanks for the food for thought.

  8. Hey Joe–Thanks for your insight. I was hoping to get your take since you have great experience with this kind of thing. From the onset of a series, an author may or may not know how many books will be bought. Of course, the more you know up front, the better off you are, as far as plotting out the arcs. But ending a series can be a hard thing to do. You have to find a way that will keep the character(s) true to himself or herself and still be an ending of sorts. In the YA book series, The Hunger Games, I was struck at the rather gray ending to that series, but it really fit the character. I would have preferred other things happen, but in the end, I think the author did a great job at staying true to her main character.

  9. It’s the eternal question, isn’t it? When I made my first sale, the book–which I had written as a standalone–became the first of a series. My publisher even specified in my contract which character they wanted to come back, and it was not a character I had envisioned living with for three more books. She began as an incidental character, but she wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to expand her role. I came to know and understand her more and more with each book, and gave her plenty of issues we had to work through–keeping her interesting through four books.

    I’m now working on the second book in a new series, doing that tightrope dance of providing enough backstory to get the reader to understand the character without bogging down the current story.

    Thanks, Jordan, for the posting. All good tips for the author who finds himself or herself in a series (intentional or not).

  10. Hello BKA–Thanks for your insights. And I feel your pain. But kudos to you for finding a creative way to launch your secondary character into a starring role. That takes imagination.

    I had a secondary character in my Sweet Justice series – Seth Harper. In book #1, I thought it would be fun for me to add more mystery to the page whenever he made an appearance. I thought it would be fun to paint myself in a corner as to what his backstory would be. I never realized how popular he’d become and how much my publisher wanted him to remain as a mainstay. So I can to completely rethink book #2 and answer all those questions about him with a clever backstory that linked him to my woman bounty hunter in a tighter fashion. The answer turned out to be simpler than I had imagined, but it felt great to come up with a solution. I think sometimes the fun quirky stuff we do (that sometimes seem to borderline on mistakes) can be the best adventures.

  11. My favorite series feature characters who grow and change over each book.

    Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder struggles with alcoholism throught the first few books, then grows in AA from then on.

    Tony Hillerman’s Chee and Leopold grow throughout the series: watching Leopold’s wife deal with cancer, then her death, his retirement, Chee’s love live, etc.

    Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and Milo have lives that change from novel to novel.

    But my current favorite is JSB’s Ty Buchanan and Sister Mary Veritas. The last book ended with a cliff hanger as to whether they would get together. Blast it, James, I’m still waiting to find out. When’s that next book coming out?

  12. Very good post. I love a great series. The familiarity with characters enriches the reading experience and it is so interesting to see the author move on through time and growth.

    Have to list a few of my favorites:
    James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux
    Wm Kent Kruger and Cork O’Connor
    John Sanford and Lucas Davenport
    Michael Connelly and H. Bosch

    These guys do it well.
    Thanks for the list…it clearly fits these author’s characters

  13. Hey there TJC–Thanks for your post. I LOVE the series authors you mentioned. I’m a big fan of many of them too. Classics. And what’s especially good about the authors you mentioned is that they’re not afraid to take a risk. They stay true to their characters while still keeping them fresh for anyone who wants to pick up their books mid-series. Love that.

  14. Dave, other books are intruding, but I’ve heard the same from a lot of readers, so maybe someday…

    Hmm, tease. . . not a bad thing for a suspense writer to be, eh?

  15. You’re so right, Jordan- it’s all about the characters. With all the successful long running series, that’s what readers tap into. You can see that in the reviews; fans are always saying things like, “I’ll read anything with Jack Reacher in it.”

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