Going Deep With a Series Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A post and an announcement today. First the post.lost-light

A few years ago I was at the Men of Mystery conference in SoCal, a one-day gathering of mystery writers and readers. The keynoter was Michael Connelly, and something he said hit home.

He was talking about advice he got early on from Joseph Wambaugh. Wambaugh, the L.A. cop turned bestselling author, told Connelly that the really interesting thing is not how the cop works on the case; it’s how the case works on the cop.

Connelly took that to heart as he began his Harry Bosch series, and the development of Bosch over the last nearly quarter century is nothing short of astonishing. We are seeing, right before our eyes, the production of greatest detective series ever written. I love me some Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. William Goldman once opined in the New York Times that the books by Ross Macdonald were “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”

But in my view Michael Connelly has taken over that distinction.

First off, his plots are always gripping. The complex mysteries come together slowly, piece by piece, as Harry does his detective work. The procedural aspects are highly detailed yet never dull.

But it’s how the cases work on Harry that takes us deeper. In each book there is something that gets to Harry Bosch and grips his soul. For example, in Lost Light, Harry (retired and working privately) sets out to solve a cold case he worked years earlier. He recalls the position of the victim’s body:

But it was her hands that I would remember the most. Somehow when her lifeless body was dropped to the tile, her hands fell together. Off to the left side of her body, they were directed upward from her head, as if she were reaching out to someone, almost beseechingly, begging for something. They look like hands from a Renaissance painting, like the hands of the damned reaching heavenward for forgiveness. In my life I have worked almost a thousand homicides and no positioning of a fallen body ever gave me such pause.

Perhaps I saw too much in the vagaries of how she had fallen. But every case is a battle in a war that never ends. Believe me, you need something to carry with you every time you go into the fight. Something to hold on to, an edge that drives you or pulls you. And it was her hands that did it for me. I could not forget her hands. I believe they were reaching to me. I still do.

So the lesson for today is this: Don’t make your novel just about how a lead character works on the plot, but how the plot works on the lead character. For where does originality come from? Not just in the twists and turns of plot. It also comes from the twists and turns inside a human being navigating a life-and-death struggle.

If you want to see how a master does it, I commend to you the novels of Michael Connelly.

And now my announcement. I have just released my second Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Way. It begins this way:

IT WAS THE first Tuesday in March, the sun taking its sweet time fighting off the cloud cover and recent rains, when I saw the kid who wanted to die.

RomeosWay_med

It can be ordered here:

AMAZON

KOBO

NOOK.

It’s also available in a PRINT VERSION.

To sum up: There are popular series where the character stays basically the same. Some of these are highly entertaining. I enjoy reading them. But when they’re done, I pretty much forget them.

Harry Bosch is unforgettable.

That’s a high bar indeed. But as Brother Brooks put it recently, “The higher the bar, the sweeter the leap.”

So what about you? For those of you who are working on a series, do you give equal thought to the inner journey as well as the outer plot line?

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20 thoughts on “Going Deep With a Series Character

  1. Thanks for the alert on this second Romeo book. Got it.

    Wow. RE: Connelly–I pulled up a list of the Bosch books in order so I knew where to start and this guy is certainly a perfect example of production. From the first book in ’92 to the one coming out later this year, there were only 2 years in which he didn’t publish a book in the series but still put out 22 books over 23 years (and I don’t know what other books outside this series he may have published during that time). Talk about sticking to the ‘sit your butt down and write’ mantra! 😎

    As to the inner journey, I don’t see how you can write stand alone or series books without intentionally tackling the inner journey. Although it definitely feels harder when tackling a series. And I can see how it would be hard to keep a recurring character fresh book after book. I’m struggling with developing a series right now (not mystery or thriller) but one of the things I’m wondering about is how do you not fall prey to writing like real life–in the sense of–depending on how much passage of time in the series–how do you keep a character from becoming ineffective and cynical over time, because life certainly deals blow after blow in real life. I would think it would be hard NOT to emulate that in story after story since each one puts the character through the grinder.

    Guess I’ll find out when I come out on the other side of the lengthy series writing process….

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    • I hear you, BK, and the Bosch series will help you answer your last question. These days Michael Connelly ruefully looks back on his decision to age Bosch in real time. So with each new book he is that much older … and it’s getting late! But that’s part of the richness of the series for me.

      With Mike Romeo I’ve been intentional about mapping an inner journey through five books … I’m writing the third now. It’s really been a help to me doing it that way.

      As far as reacting to “blow after blow,” it can go either way, can’t it? Toward a dark cynicism … or toward “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

      The nice thing about fiction, over life, is that we can shape it as we desire, say what we want to say.

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  2. Although I’ve read about Harry Bosch, I’ve yet to read any of Michael Connelly’s books. However now has to be the time after reading what you say – especially since I am working on a mystery that will be a series with the same detective, hopefully.

    Thank you.

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    • You have a lot of reading pleasure ahead of you, Roland. Just be aware that you may feel like a high school basketball hopeful watching video of Steph Curry. 🙂

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  3. That Wambaugh advice has always stuck with me and beena part of my character development. No one does it like Michael Connelly. Good choice, Jim. Whenever I need to replenish the creative well, I binge on Connelly. Harry Bosch has developed over the years with a remarkable internal monologue. The police procedural aspects are thorough yet never tedious. Connelly thinks like a cop and makes it look effortless. I’ve never read a Michael Connelly novel and been disappointed in any aspect of it. I binged on his Mickey Haller books not long ago and wanted more. Connelly is my crack.

    Congratulations on your new release & Romeo series. Can’t wait to read it. I’m launching my own off The Last Victim with FBI profiler Ryker Townsend. It’s fun and a challenge to get to know a character well enough to keep his journey fresh with book story arcs as well as a longer term notion. Thanks for another timely post. Have a good Sunday.

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    • Right you are, Jordan, about Connelly. The mysteries, the procedure, and the inner life, combined with a style that is like a jazz sax–which I always hear in the background when he describes L.A.

      Congrats on your new series. Have fun!

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  4. For me, I continue a series for the characters. The mystery aspects are almost secondary — it’s a safe bet the crime will be solved, the bad guy caught, or the evil plot to destroy something/someone thwarted. Right now, I’m reading Harlan Coben’s newest, Fool Me Once. He writes stand alones, but it’s still all about the characters. I’m only halfway through and there’s no doubt the mystery is working the protagonist.

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    • Coben has always done that so well, Terry. His plots have amazing twists, but he makes sure we’re connected to the characters with heartstrings. There’s a reason he’s on the A list.

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  5. Jim, thanks for another great post.

    I like Wambaugh’s advice. This is a very succinct and helpful way to remember it.

    I read Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, but had to go back repeatedly to make it through. I thought the beginning of the book didn’t show much character development, but the ending was great. Now, after this post, I’m eager to go back and read some of his more recent novels.

    As to your question about working on a series: I’m starting the second book of what I hope will be a four book series. I’ve always thought of the series as being built on the protagonist’s life story, both the internal and external journey, with each book being a “node” of importance on that journey.

    Thanks for the notice of Romeo’s Way. Just bought it, and am looking forward to reading it. I loved Romeo’s Rules.

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    • Connelly grew as a writer, and about the time of The Last Coyote, if memory serves, he went to a whole other level. And has stayed there.

      Thanks for the support, Steve. Enjoy!

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  6. The thing I noticed about the Connelly passage you cited is, again, how he uses one great telling detail to speak volumes. The mere positioning of a dead woman’s hands. Lovely.

    Good luck and great launch with Romeo’s Way. You caught me at a good moment, between books and looking for something juicy. And the price is sure right!

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    • Thanks for the support, Kris. And you’re so right about Connelly and the “telling detail.” His books are full of them–specific, evocative. Masterful.

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  7. My Lisa character was a decorated, enlisted Marine military police officer who left the active corps to search for her godbrother. She was, in my mind, 26 or so at story’s end. While at home, she takes a job as a police officer on her home town police force. The book is a story of a possibly dangerous paranormal, though not supernatural, cryptid. (All of her encounters with the cryptids are dangerous and threatening. In real life, not all are. Or so they say. )

    Now, I am giving her new adventures though she is married (wed in the first book) and has children as well as her still-young, Osage Indian, chief of police husband. She is still deeply attached to her adopted twin sister, and she loves her own and her adopted family deeply.

    Because of her unique military police experience, she’s called on to provide security for search teams in a fictional part of Tennessee. She promises her husband and children she’ll only put in three days because the search is coming to an end.

    Except she finds herself, three days later, climbing a high ridge with a child tied to her back. She is weak and shaky because she has not eaten or drunk water for a day. Something that she has not been able to lay eyes on though it has breathed on her, is pursuing her. Whatever it is has killed her new friend, Sheriff Domitia Decidiana Qualls, the sheriff of fictional Cherokee County, Tennessee. (People called her Dom Qualls.) And now it’s tying to kill Lisa and the child. I am trying to call attention to the hundreds of children and others who disappear in America ever year. In real life, something bad is happening in our national parks and forests.

    And then, in the next book, Lisa chases something down the hall of her home. It skitters into the bedroom of the triplets (there’s also the twins, and Timmy, her oldest), then goes through the bullet glass window of the triplet’s bedroom without breaking it. It runs down the slanted roof outside of the window, down onto the grass of Miller’s Meadow, and out toward the lighted object sitting in the middle of the Meadow. The object rises and zips off, emitting no sound. A few nights later, a desperate battle erupts between Lisa’s family and the evil things that may well have come to try to kidnap the Trent children. Or possibly her husband or Lisa herself. The book is about the true nature of these flitting creatures and those things they seem to ride around in. Neither are what most people think they are.

    These are cautionary tales about subjects that most people in real life, discount. Yet, they are actually happening.

    The challenge in all of this is giving gravitas and maturity, and not a comic book image, to Lisa through each of her adventures, to give credibility to the tales. Yes, that’s the challenge.

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    • “The challenge in all of this is giving gravitas and maturity, and not a comic book image, to Lisa through each of her adventures, to give credibility to the tales. Yes, that’s the challenge.”

      Well stated, Jim. And your summary here suggests to me you have a handle on the way forward. Happy uncrypting!

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  8. This is pure gold: “So the lesson for today is this: Don’t make your novel just about how a lead character works on the plot, but how the plot works on the lead character.”

    Nice post today, Jim.

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  9. Back in ye olden times, when I was taking screenwriting at USC, the instructor stated that the movie should be about the most important time in your character’s life. After all, why write the second or third most important thing when the most is out there. I brought up serials and sequels at that point, and my queries were pooh-poohed away. It’s the same with novels. You want to write about the most important time. But if you’re writing a series it’s not just The Most Important Time, but a whole lot more (depending on how successful the series is). IMO one way to keep up that interest in the character is change. Continuing with Michael Connelly the Terry McCaleb in A Darkness More Than Night has changed substantially from Blood Simple, in no small part because of those events. Even Jack Reacher, whose actions seem much the same, is a much richer character now than in The Killing Floor simply because (if you’ve read the novels and short stories) simply because we know so much more about him. Characters need to grow along with the series to keep reader interest.

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    • USC, eh? Did you have Blacker?

      Reacher is an interesting contrast, because you get the sense Lee Child doesn’t really want him to change … but there are bits and pieces here and there where he just can’t help it.

      Perhaps that’s why I like Chandler’s last Marlowe, The Long Goodbye, best. By that point the inner Chandler and the inner Marlowe joined together, and the portrait was all the richer.

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      • I had to think about that for a few minutes. My first screenwriting class was with Pamela Douglas, and advanced classes were with Jim Boyle.

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