Many pulp writers of old made good bank with a hit series character.
Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan.
Erle Stanley Gardner gave us Perry Mason.
Dashiell Hammett penned the Continental Op.
The ladies were represented as well. An obvious pen name “Lars Anderson” wrote a series featuring college-educated Ellen Patrick, who fought corruption in 1930s Los Angeles as “the Domino Lady.” The pulp magazine she appeared in was Saucy Romantic Adventures, and wouldn’t you like to have a few original copies of that?
Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of the hit series character. So popular was Holmes that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, couldn’t get out from under him. At one point Doyle killed off his detective, but the public demanded he be brought back. His resurrection was by way of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. When it was first published in The Strand magazine, the circulation of that periodical went up by about thirty thousand.
In other words, Doyle, though feeling a bit trapped, took that feeling all the way to the bank.
What Makes a Great Series Character?
I see five qualities in the best series characters. If you can pack these in from the start, your task is half done. Here they are:
- A point of uniqueness, a quirk or style that sets them apart from everybody else
What is unique about Sherlock Holmes? He’s moody and excitable. Among the very staid English, that was different.
Jack Reacher? Come on. The guy doesn’t own a phone or clothes. He travels around with only a toothbrush. Funny how every place he goes he runs into massive trouble and very bad people.
- A skill at which they are really, really good
Katniss Everdeen is killer with the bow and arrow.
Harry Potter is one of the great wizards (though he has a lot to learn).
- A bit of the rebel
The series hero should rub up against authority, even if it’s in a quiet way, like Miss Marple muttering “Oh, dear” at the local constabulary. Hercule Poirot is a needle in the side of Inspector Japp.
- A vulnerable spot or character flaw
Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has a vicious temper that sometimes gets the better of him.
Sherlock Holmes has a drug habit.
Stephanie Plum keeps bouncing between two lovers, who complicate her life.
- A likable quality
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has some of the greatest quips in the history of crime fiction. We like them because Marlowe is also vulnerable—to getting beat up, drugged, or otherwise manhandled by forces larger than himself (like Moose Malloy).
Wit is one of the great likability factors.
Another is caring for others besides oneself. Stephanie Plum has a crazy family to care for, not to mention her sometime partner Lula.
Will the Character Grow?
One decision you should make early on is how much character growth there will be. While you’ll hear a lot about the necessity for character arcs, they aren’t always necessary.
For example, Jack Reacher doesn’t change. I once heard Lee Child talking about this on a panel, and he said, “Arcs? We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Michael Connelly, on the other hand, has brought tremendous change to his series character, Harry Bosch. He decided, too, that he would age Bosch right along with the books, a decision he has come to ruefully regret. Bosch is getting up there!
At the very least, your character ought to grow stronger with each adventure. Why? Because without that there is no tension or conflict in the story. Each new tale must challenge the character in some way that threatens him with death (physical, professional, or psychological).
Self-publishing today provides the writer with a way to “test drive” a potential series character. You can do that in a number of ways.
You can write a story and send it to several beta readers. These are people you know and trust to give you honest feedback.
You can publish in a free venue, like Wattpad, and collect the feedback that way.
There’s always the option of going to Kindle Direct Publishing, and using Kindle Select exclusivity so you can promote the story for free. Promote the heck out of it. Read the reviews.
The pulp writers of old weren’t shy about testing a character and then moving on if that character didn’t create enough buzz. Their big problem was the lag time between sending in a story and waiting months for it to appear.
Today, you don’t have to wait.
Who are some of your favorite series characters? What do you think is the key to their popularity?