by James Scott Bell
Today’s post is about a quandary faced by the writer of a series character. I’m anxious to have a robust discussion with our community of sharp readers and writers about it. Simply put, the problem is love.
Readers enjoy a romantic subplot in thrillers and mysteries. The dilemma is what to do with that love interest long term.
I’ll approach this from the standpoint of the male, hardboiled hero.
Once a woman is in the picture, the lone wolf is no longer alone. He must deal with the fact that his walk down “mean streets” may have to be tempered in order to protect his love from bad guys.
If the two become one, either through marriage or cohabitation, the wolf must be domesticated to a degree, which automatically means less hardness in the boil. But if that hardness is what made the hero popular, what now?
One method, of course, is to have the love interest killed off. James Bond’s wife, Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t even make it out of the book.
But what if a love interest develops over several books? I suspect most readers will bond with her to such an extent that her death would be met with howls of protest.
Let’s consider John Sandford’s Prey series (32 books and counting). In Winter Prey (#5) Lucas Davenport meets and falls for plastic surgeon Weather Karkinnen. She remains in the books. They get married. They have kids.
Many fans of the series feel this resulted in “Decaf Davenport,” or “The Weather Problem.”
Weather Karkinnen…has been a thorn in the author’s side for years, but only for reasons relating to how thrillers are constructed. It almost resulted in Weather getting killed off.
[The problem] can be summed up with three simple points:
- Readers want a romance of some sort,
- New romance is much more exciting than old romance,
- Therefore, long-term relationships should not happen to main characters.
Weather is important, if only as a target for the bad guys. Lucas and Weather’s relationship will therefore play a more important role, but it’s still going to be stable. But since it’s stable, it’s boring.
Worse (the thinking goes), Lucas is no longer the lovable bad-boy rogue he used to be. He can’t go out and “have fun” because then he’d be unfaithful, and that’s not acceptable. The presence of Weather mellowed him out, smoothed him out, and turned him into Decaf Davenport Lite.
Or at least, that’s what some readers feel has happened.
One half [of readers] think that Weather is the best thing to happen to Lucas, and while they loved the bad boy Lucas of old, he’s grown up, and it would be unrealistic for him to not grow up, and he’s a better person now, and more believable, and there should be more sections dedicated to the wonderful loving family relationships between Lucas, Weather and Letty, Sam, and Gabrielle.
The other half of the fanbase basically want Weather to get hit by a train. Like, yesterday.
Then there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (50 books, and counting, even with Mr. Parker dead. Now that’s a writer!) and his love, psychologist Susan Silverman. In sum:
Not every Spenser fan likes his romance with Susan…TV executives weren’t sure what to do with her either, dropping her character from the “Spenser: For Hire” TV show after the first two seasons. Readers who like Spenser’s wry quips, quick right hook, and noir-esque philosophical musing are sometimes put off by the perennial declarations of love and fidelity between the two, which can seem out of place. But love, and the ability to love, is a cornerstone of Spenser’s moral code. He consciously differentiates his own violent behavior and moral compass from that of his peers with his ability to love Susan. (He also thinks much more highly of anyone who he perceives to be capable of a genuinely loving relationship.)
One solution to the Significant Other Conundrum is to make the love interest an “equal partner” in the plots, a la Joelle “Joe” Frye in the Louis Kincaid novels by our own P. J. Parrish. She’s equal in that she is the only female homicide detective in the Miami-Dade Police Department and thus can carry her own plotline.
But if that’s not the solution the author has in mind, how shall this conundrum be handled?
Thus, the questions for the day:
- Do you want to see a love interest in a thriller series?
- If that love interest develops into a significant other for several books, what would be your solution to the “decaf” problem for the hardboiled hero?
“He also thinks much more highly of anyone who he perceives to be capable of a genuinely loving relationship.”
I’m reminded of a remark in Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. When he asked a biker witness for a contact number, the man said he could be reached at his wife’s phone. Bugliosi was struck by the realization that he had more in common with this biker than with any of the Manson Family.
“Do you want a love interest in a thriller series?”
Not always, but I think movies need one more than books.
“What’s your solution to the “decaf” problem for the hardboiled hero?”
Interesting thought re:divorce. It’s sort of the alternative to killing her off, only with lawyers.
Talk about conflict!!
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is an example of a series character who oscillates between the different forms of love and commitment, covering, in 21 novels, a wide variety of possibilities without getting tied down – even when he wants, desperately, to be.
Always worked for me.
Yeah, ol’ Trav, a man of the 60s and the “sexual revolution,” lived that life (like Bond). That trope probably wouldn’t work today. While I like a good McGee, I prefer JDM’s stand alones. One of my favorites is Cancel All Our Vows, a realistic look at marriage and infidelity in the 1950s.
I like seeing the ‘other side’ of the protagonist’s life.
I’m writing the 11th installment in my Mapleton Mystery series. Police Chief protagonist’s relationship with female acquaintance developed into marriage and she’s even had her own POV novella. But I don’t write hard-boiled cops or thrillers. The Mapleton books straddle genre-lines between police procedurals and cozies. I label all my books, be they mysteries or romantic suspense, “Mysteries With Relationships” so I’m probably not the right person to get into this discussion. I’ll sit back and see what others think.
Seems to me this works a lot easier in pure mysteries. E.g., Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.
“Mysteries With Relationships”
A bit of a pleonasm, that.
The #1 thorn in my side as a writer. The love interest. Unlike 99.999% of the populace, I don’t give a flip about romance threads, regardless whether it’s thriller or any other genre. But I need at least a few someones out of that 99.999% of the populace to read my books so it’s been a long haul to come to terms with the fact that I’ll have to adapt.
I haven’t read a ton of thrillers but I loved the Spencer series–I didn’t recall that Susan had been written out after 2 seasons. I liked her character and their relationship just fine, but would have been very bored if they’d married, despite liking her character because…well…what do you do with that? And I wouldn’t want his character to sink into adulterous relationships, etc.
In the last year or so I read a historical mystery series where a love interest was gradually introduced for the main protag (in this series, a female lead). They eventually married and due to his background, he became involved in investigating the mysteries. I liked the way the author handled it because the relationship was doled out s-l-o-w-l-y over the course of time, and it was handled unobtrusively throughout the series, never taking the story over and being a subtle part of the background.
I liked the love interest, but the writer thankfully didn’t bash me over the head with the romance thread or domestic drama. For me, if you have to have a love interest, that’s the way it ought to be. And while I don’t have experience writing a hard-boiled detective, I would think that slow, unobtrusive background approach would be best. Although when I think of hardboiled detectives, I tend to think ‘flings’ is their style.
And boy what timing this post. I’m in the middle of writing my first mystery (also historical) and I’m writing it with someone. We’ve been writing as pantsers and we’ve introduced a love triangle that will roll out slowly over books but to make things even more challenging, at present, we disagree on which suitor will ultimately win the female protag. And that’s also a complication for me–I typically write male leads, so I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone on just about every level. Who knows how it will all end up. 😎
Speaking of love triangles, how about Stephanie Plum and Morelli and Ranger? Evanovich has juggled those three for a long time (I don’t know where they are now), but somewhere in the middle of the series she was asked Stephanie and Morelli would end up in a permanent relationship. She said, “I don’t want to tie Stephanie down to Morelli yet. Maybe some day, but certainly not for several more books.”
I think some fans were frustrated by this.
I was thinking about the Stephanie Plum books when I read your post, Jim. Evanovich has managed to keep that relationship going through more than 30 books.
Yes, it is a problem when your tough guy goes all lovey-dovey. I’m sure that’s why Mickey Spillane held off letting Mike Hammer and Velda get married.
Yeah, he proposes to her in One Lonely Night (#4), but then I wonder if Mr. Spillane thought, uh-oh…and poor Velda has to wait, Indeed, they didn’t tie the knot until one of the novels Max Allan Collins co-wrote after Spillane’s death.
Sounds like a hot discussion today. And it sounds like Mike Romeo is getting lonely for a relationship. I look forward to everyone’s responses today.
Last night my wife and I watched the 2010 Robin Hood movie with Russel Crowe – a great prequel to the “legends of Robin Hood.” It made me think of some new ideas for a new book series with similar themes set in current times. And the Maid Marian relationship took on new meaning.
I’m guessing the answer to your first question will be “yes” for most people. We all want love.
The tough decision for the writer, and the answers to the second question, may divide down the lines of the “churched” and the “unchurched.” The unchurched will want the continuing raw excitement of “eros” love with all the explosive passion that is built into films and commercials. The churched may be happy to see literature with a “sense of moral values” and the presence of a love relationship with “philia” love, and a faithful, stable relationship.
The only compromise that I can see for books is a secret stable marriage relationship that the hardboiled MC returns home to, while otherwise he/she is on the run from one crime to be solved to another, with all the attendant “temptations of this world.”
I look forward to seeing how you work this out for Mike. (Too bad Sister Justicia Marie couldn’t leave the convent and marry Mike. Now that would be a fiery relationship.)
Now that would be a nice partnership! Sister J and Mike. Fan fiction, anyone?
“Too bad Sister Justicia Marie couldn’t leave the convent and marry Mike. Now that would be a fiery relationship.”
A new spin on the Eternal Triangle?
I write cozy mysteries. And since that’s more of a heroine’s journey plot, than a hero’s journey, getting them together is part of the story. In fact, I’ve been nudged that way by readers for my longest running series.
However, the problem with hero stories is he’s supposed to be that lone wolf. I like the idea of having a duo hero – having her (or him) a strong character too. But it’s inching into that heroine’s story where the tribe is an important part of the journey.
Maybe there’s a middle ground between the two plot journeys. A hero/heroine’s joint journey where people can have a happy home life without being boring.
That’s the trick, Lynn…”without being boring.” So many of the Spenser-Susan exchanges are just clever and “sweet.” That, as we all know, means no conflict…which as we also know is the lifeblood of page-turning fiction!
If you’re considering your own Mike Romeo series, (Mike vs. Sophie), I think you should start the growth of your main. I’m curious how Mike gets over issues with PTSD and develops bonds with others than the friendly neighborhood Rabi. I haven’t finished your latest yet, but I like the idea of him getting more grounded in life. My issues are around Mike being super intelligent, but too dumb to realize what he needs to heal himself. Eventually, I suspect the reader will think that such characters are failing themselves.
I like the transition of Debbie Burke’s character Tawny Lindholm, with got married and found new conflict through her second marriage. I like Debbie’s transition of growth and struggle through her books.
Overall, a series must show transition and growth of the main. That doesn’t mean that they must fully step into adulthood. However, I’d like to believe that people mature with experience. When they don’t I get turned off.
I have not read past book 9 of the Stephanie Plum series for reasons of the character becoming the say thing each outing. As I reader I get annoyed investing years into something and there’s no payback with progression.
Aw, Ben, thanks for your kind words!
He’s a hard boiled hard ass. And she’s no pussycat shrinking violet. They drive each other crazy. Plenty of fireworks, breakups and makeups, and scorching hot sex — cuz makeup sex is the BEST sex — ahead. Who says love/romance has to be sugar sweet plain vanilla??? What writer wants to put readers into a diabetic coma?
See ex-cop Ralph and no-bs ex-fashion ed Blake in my Cozy In The City series.
There’s you next workshop, Ruth. “No Diabetic Comas.”
What a great topic, Jim. For me, a love interest in a thriller adds more depth to the main character and often raises the stakes.
Philip Marlowe’s romances always ended badly, leaving him the perennial lone wolf. In Poodle Springs (unfinished when Chandler died and completed by Robert Parker), Marlowe marries but, from the start, it’s doomed to fail.
Then there’s Dave Robicheaux with his string of unfortunate wives.
I like Kris’s solution of making the characters equals and colleagues.
I followed her example with my series. Tawny Lindholm is an optimist who believes in the goodness of humanity. She becomes an investigator for cynical attorney Tillman Rosenbaum, who trusts no one, except her. During investigations, they see-saw back and forth. She thinks he’s too harsh, he thinks she’s too naive. Neither is right all the time. Both get in trouble b/c of their attitudes. Also, in each book, one reveals a new secret about their past.
I don’t expect to be around long enough to write a series that lasts 32 or 50 books 😉
I love this, Debbie! That’s a terrific, compelling dynamic.
Great post, Jim and a great question. I’m a fan of slow burn romance, and in fact one developed in my Empowered series, running over the course of five books. The love interest was very much apart of the main storyline. Now that I’m working on a cozy mystery series, another slow burn romance is simmering. Romances are very much a part of the cozy genre, often romantic triangles.
As for thrillers: I do like the idea of a romance in a thriller series, but it’s a challenge for the hard boiled hero. I also like the idea of the duo hero where the love interest is directly involved in the storyline. However, like Lynn noted above, that nudges the hero’s journey of a thriller into the heroine’s journey. Still, that would be my preference.
Aside: Gail Carriger’s The Heroine’s Journey is an excellent rundown of that story structure, as well as comparing it to the Hero’s journey, and how each structure can incorporate the other one as a subplot of sorts.
Have a wonderful Sunday!
There are a number of books on the Heroine’s Journey. Victoria Lynn Schmidt has a treatment of it in her book on 45 Master Characters.
You just made me buy another book 🙂 I’d forgotten about 45 Master Characters. I book I remember looking at the original edition years before I began the path of fiction writing craft, but it didn’t click with me. However, when I did a “look inside” on Amazon this morning, it immediately resonated. Thanks for mentioning it!
PS: Can anyone help? The tweet button has disappeared & I have to set up tweets manually. I’ve restarted my computer, reloaded KillZone but nope, no tweet button. I’m on a Mac desktop. (Tweet button fine on my iPad)
Sorry to hear that. I was able to get the Tweet button above to work on my MacBook Air. The only things I can think of, aside from the restart you’ve already done, is log out of Twitter and back in, and clearing your browser’s cache for KZB.
I remember reading that director Sergio Leone had a love interest for The Man with No Name in one of the first two films of the Dollars Trilogy, but he removed the scenes in final edit because he believed it softened Clint Eastwood’s character—a lone wolf gunman didn’t need a woman, or anyone else. You can see scenes of Eastwood interacting with a beautiful woman but it goes no further than mild flirtation. I think it was the right decision.
The other approach, less popular these days, is to have your hero bed a new woman in each book. It creates a certain form of romance subplot while adding Ladies Man to his arsenal of talents and weaponry. Think 70s men’s adventure novels.
Yet a third approach is the old Will They Or Won’t They. I feel like I’ve seen this in Reacher stories. You let the hero bond with a woman, be chivalrous, build intimacy, but realize that alas it’s a love that can never be. Scratches the reader’s romance itch but leaves the lone wolf intact.
Thanks for the thoughts, Philip. I do think #2, which began in the 60s (McGee, Bond) is probably least promising.
Agree with you. Glad they handled those Clint Eastwood movies the way they did. This thread reminds me of watching TV shows in the 70’s such as Bonanza. They tediously and periodically felt obliged to introduce a love interest for one of the Cartwright boys or Ben. But since there was no value in keeping them, they were either killed off or left town.
To me other relationships besides romance offer so much more potential for conflict and interest in a story.
Funny that you brought this up today, Jim. I finished Romeo’s Rage last night, and I’ve been thinking about how you handle the Mike/Sophie relationship. You’ve found a great way to keep the tension high with Mike’s concern about bringing Sophie into his violent world. Btw, I loved the book.
In my mystery series, the MC fell into a romance with what will probably turn out to be her husband at some book in the future. They’re a stable, loving couple, but each has their own ideas. Although I haven’t felt the need to include their romance in every book, I’m rethinking that decision. Maybe I’ll throw a relational curve ball at them in a future novel just to see how they react.
Thanks for the good word, Kay. And you’ve hit on why I’m asking this question today!
I figured as much. I’ll be interested to see what direction you decide on for Mike and Sophie.
You and me both!
It’s irreconcilable and untenable, in my opinion and in my reading experience. I think once you feel you have to have your series character in a stable, committed, long-haul relationship, you’ve entered a creative cul-de-sac. To me it’s a screaming neon sign of an author’s boredom or frustration with the series itself. And the series should probably end. Because I think that’s really what the author wants if they’re being honest by taking away the free-range part of the hero that readers fell in love with in the first place. And you too, presumably. Series that drag on through domestic bliss inevitable take on the cold-hot-dog-water pallor of pallid fan service or brand management, and lose the special sauce of creative inspiration that made the series in the first place.
A strong opinion there, Jim. I think perhaps too strong. I don’t see a necessary connection to an author’s “boredom.” I see it as a way to add complexity, which can provide another source of “juice.” The trick is to keep the original juice, too.
When it’s just original juice book after book, the character moves to the realm of comic bookism, IMO. There will be a swath of fans who are fine with that, too. No question. It is thus the easy way out. That, it seems to me, is also a path toward author boredom.
Too strong, maybe, and I apologize for the strident tone. But how do you maintain complexity without high-stakes conflict that doesn’t resort to the usual series cliches like the love being kidnapped, or getting a good job offer in a distant city, or an erratic child? In my reading experience, series that cross that threshold reach deep into a bag of old trucks to keep grinding along.
Clear in context, except for:
“Truck, n; 2c: Informal: Worthless goods; stuff or rubbish.” –Free Dictionary
Every time I see a love interest in a tec novel, I think: “Here comes the kidnapping.” I’m rarely wrong, unfortunately.
No apology necessary, Jim. It wasn’t about tone, just the extent of the opinion.
As for certain tropes, they exist, and genre writers must attend to them. Thus, the real “trick” is to figure out how to do them entertainingly.
And I had a bag of old trucks as a kid.
You maintain complexity by having characters that have conflicts despite loving one another. My co-protagonists approach every mystery from opposite directions. The female lead is a hacker and believes in finding justice regardlesss of the laws she breaks. The male lead is former military and a security company professional who expects to take the baddie to his/her day in court and wants clean evidence legally obtained. He’s out practicing hand-to-hand combat while she’s writing program code or teaching poor women computer skills. They both have jobs that consume them. He’s CEO of one of the top five largest corporations in the galaxy. She’s developing a technology that will help the poor and downtrodden get off heavily polluted planet Earth in mass numbers. She hates corporations. He’s helping her build one so she can achieve her goals. Finding time to be together is a struggle. They’ll never run out of things to disagree about, but they’ll love one another to the end of time. It’s not romance. It’s a realistic relationship built on trust.
I’m not a romantic person, or a hardboiled thriller reader. But I do believe in that old adage that nobody develops in a vacuum. If not a romantic partner, there should be a friendship of some kind.
I just went to a writers conference last weekend, and one workshop was on writing romantic elements. One question from the audience was just this: how do you write a romantic subplot with a committed relationship. The presenter said that you can have the characters discover new things about each other. New quirks, ways of thinking that you’d never guess they would have (think politics), etc. You’re never the same person throughout life, and so the relationship shouldn’t be the same(or boring( when life happens.
This reminds me of that excerpt you put in your writing books, Jim, where the wife is freaking out because the dog got poisoned by the recently released psychopath. Work affects home and home affects work. Not all the time, but often enough.
(I didn’t intend to write long, but it happened.)
That is a good point, azali. We do change when we come together, or resist change at our peril. And true character is only found in crisis, so there’s that to explore as well.
Although here’s one clever workaround:
The Saratoga mysteries by Stephen Dobyns starred private detective Charlie Bradshaw Bradshaw is an ordinary-looking, schlumpy, hangdog type who spent a three-novel arc beung in unrequited love with a nice woman who liked him well enough but didn’t reciprocate his feelings (which was much more interesting than a sizzling-chemistry scenario). Then, over a few more books, he met a woman who loved him back, and the tension between them lay in Charlie’s unwillingness to give up his bachelor lakefront cottage. But that could play out only for so long, and when that was resolved, really, so was Charlie’s story.
And Dobyns clearly knew it, for he did an exceedingly clever thing: he handed the POV keys for the series to Charlie’s best friend and sidekick, Victor Plotz, an aging but unrepentant libertine and womanizer who brought a broadly comic zest to the stories that represented a sharp break with Charlie’s moody interiority. (Victor liked to say things like: “I never knock before entering a house; doing so would make me responsible for what I find.”)
That gave the series a fresh spark of life and clearly rejuvenated its creator as well, like a middle-aged insurance adjuster who one day quits his job to fulfill a suppressed dream ti be a stand-up comic. Nothing in this move suggested brand management or grim, grinding self-perpetuation out of the author’s fear of letting go of their cash cow long after the milk has dried up. To me, that showed not just a lot of daring but a lot of integrity.
So, to me, the real question here is: Do you really care about what’s on the other side of a character’s committed relationship? Or are you trying to force through it because you’re simply not willing to risk your brand or ready to call it quits on a creator-character relationship that’s run its course?
Maybe none of the above, Jim. Maybe you keep loving your character and want watch him growing, fighting, changing, going back, fighting some more, on that long hero’s journey toward the elixir. Maybe that’s the author’s journey, deep down.
I’ve found once a committed relationship/marriage is introduced the trajectory of future story possibilities within the series is forever affected. Especially true if children are part of the mix.
The ramifications of introducing a committed love (and possible family) element are immense. They are easy to introduce but brutal to remove.
The cautions and considerations you shared are wise. I’ve never seen discussed before – wish I had.
They are easy to introduce but brutal to remove.
So true. And the middle position, keeping them in the picture, is, if not brutal, really difficult.
Then again, maybe it’s good for a writer of a series to challenge himself.
Such a deep post and another JSB great teaching point. I interpret the lesson as one can introduce the love/spouse/family aspect if one chooses but be aware of the consequences and creative challenges ahead.
I’m feeling my protagonist’s relationship/family as limiting. My character’s trajectory has been irrevocably altered. That could be OK for many but in my series I feel it’s requiring me to direct my stories in directions I might not otherwise choose (or work well for readers).
Getting “rid” of his family, despite it being fiction, feels too harsh for my sensibilities.
Oh well – Those who read this post may be able to avoid the “ready. Fire, aim!” approach.
Historically, the consulting detective has little or no arc. He is already complete (with a flaw or two), not in need of a wife. We are in awe of his brilliance and competence (or single-minded callousness). He is focused more on his work than anything/ anyone else. He makes few mistakes.
Even Holmes, however, had his soft spot: “He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen…. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” A woman very like himself: brilliant, focused, unstoppable.
Bosch has relationships with several brilliant women…but nothing permanent. Then there’s his daughter. Connelly, of course, is the most brilliant of all.
“Harry” is exceptionally fun to watch. I haven’t read the books, but I may have to!
I think it depends on the hero.
It probably wouldn’t work for Jack Reacher, partly because.a lot of us secretly hope he rides into our town one day.
But let a guy go too long with no attachments and he starts to look like a serial killer.
I’m not a fan of killing the wife off, though NCIS keeps doing it over and over to the point where it’s no longer must see TV for me any more. They killed or wrote off just about everyone I liked.
I don’t think marriage is boring, but I’m still on my first and it’s only been 44 years so who knows?
A guy named Romeo is required to have a love interest. 🙂
A guy named Romeo is required to have a love interest.
Ha! (Of course, the original did not end so well, but still!)
In Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, hard-as-nails Kate meets a guy and over a number of novels falls in love with him. At the job, she’s still hard-as-nails, but in private she has a soft side. Then he’s murdered, and she changes back to the exact person emotionally she was at the beginning of the series. Stabenow hit a bloody reset button for her character.
As a reader, it annoyed the heck out of me, and I stopped reading the series a few books later. As a writer, I was rather disgusted at both her concern that she was now labeled a yucky romance writer by some fans and her lazy character choices. A reset button is never a good choice to make whether you write a straight thriller, a mystery, or any other genre. Nor is “fridging” a romantic partner as a plot device.
In good fiction, people change, or you have Teflon characters where experience slides right off them. You can tell interesting stories with Teflon characters, but the readers are all about the plots, not the main characters. If that’s okay with you as a writer, go for it. Don’t be surprised, though, if some readers are turned off by that. The largest reader demographic in most markets is female, and women like emotion in their stories.
In comparison to Stabenow, there’s Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. It’s urban fantasy, but it’s mystery and action/adventure based so most people find it a good read. Anyway, Kate starts as a mercenary with a “Big Secret” who is a prickly, broken loner with a code of honor and frightening skills with weapons and battles. She slowly changes, kicking and screaming at it at times, into a more complete person with a lover, friends, and complete control over her “Big Secret.” She’s still a bad ass, though. If you want to see how to change your main character without making them toothless, this is a master class in the subject. Plus, I’ve never read any books that do fight and battle scenes as well as these do.
The largest reader demographic in most markets is female, and women like emotion in their stories.
Good point, Marilynn. Though I was somewhat surprised the first time I saw the “Reacher Creatures” at ThrillerFest–a large group of mostly female fans. Maybe there’s just as big a swath who want their hardboiled “bad boy” to remain the same?
Thanks for the tip on the Kate Daniels series.
The series is great. When asked at a reading how the husband/wife author team behind Ilona Andrews wrote those great sword fights and battle scenes, they said it was because they got up from the computers, took up their yardstick swords, and gave it a whirl. Their kids thought they were nuts, but it paid off in their writing with clear, realistic, and clever action. And as Marilynn says, it is a master class in character development over a series.
This works. My husband and I use it consistently for my dystopian series swordfights.
It helps that we both fight full-contact combat for a reenactment group, so we have a moderate idea of what works, both in one-on-one and melee.
Fortunately, only the cats are annoyed by our rattan sword skirmishes.
I’m deeply intrigued by the Andrews series now! Thanks for the must-find tip!
Funny you post about this topic today, Jim. My editor just told me she missed my MC’s detective boyfriend in my latest thriller. Since he didn’t fit in the plot (the MC is away from home, in another state) he’s mentioned but doesn’t appear on the page. She needs to dump him soon anyway, because he doesn’t fit with the new direction of the series. I may have him pop in here and there to cause conflict, but otherwise, I’m afraid he’ll soon have his heart broken.
Oh, please! No more baddies going after the SO and family. The trope has been done to death as much or more than the alcoholic detective. If I read a blurb that mentions family in peril, I put the book down and look for something else.
As to the lead having an SO, the easiest route is if the SO is a co-protagonist. If the SO is essentially a secondary character, I think the author still has a duty to figure out in every book how the SO or the relationship with the SO helps drive the story forward. Otherwise, the relationship devolves to nothing more than the get-up-in-the-morning-drink-the-coffee-get-dressed scene. The SO becomes window dressing, something to check off the ‘maturity’ list instead of a vital component of arriving at the conclusion. What’s the lead learning from the SO? How does that help the lead succeed in the climax?
a vital component of arriving at the conclusion
That’s the ticket.
A problem in more than mysteries. Look at the number of significant others Uhtred went through in the Saxon Tales series by Bernard Cornwell. (I don’t know what they did with that in the TV series) The fact is that most normal people do either marry or have relationships, and if you leave that out entirely, you have limited their characterisation. But if you kill off every love interest (male or female, depending on the gender of the MC) you are trodding a pretty cliched path. I recently sent a love interest to a nunnery, which was a fairly definite solution to that problem. 🤷♀️
How 16th century of you, J. R.!
14th century, thank you very much! 😜 I will admit it is not a solution available to most authors.
It was the same (possibly worse?) in the TV series, JR.
He went through a succession of lovers, wives, sorceresses, would-be-flames (the latter who technically should have been the age of his own daughter.)…it was a bit ludicrous by the end.
I think he hit four or five of the “fridged” versions listed in that fantastic TV Trope website! (posted here by Marilynn)
The only one to hang on was the teen love interest who had long since been turned into the series villain.
And yet, even that was preferrable (and far more true to her character) than marrying Uhtred and bearing a litter of babies!
As I’ve read all of the Bosch volumes to date, I’ve wondered about the questions you raise, Jim. I guess with Bosch it’s a matter of his character being somehow incompatible with long-lasting relationship, even when he’d want one. [Spoiler alert:] He really wanted the marriage with the FBI woman-professional gambler.
In my mind I contrast Bosch with Mosley’s Leonid McGill, whose family life with its challenges and evolution is a continuing element in the novels.
My wife has mentioned the successful on-going relationship in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books. I’m about to start reading Crocodile on the Sandbank,
I think traditional mysteries are better suited for including and developing long-term relationships than thrillers or hard-core mysteries with their dependence on lone-wolf characters who may be promiscuous or may be pure loners. But if there’s too much, it may well disappoint people looking for pure mysteries.
A lot to think about, Eric. Various permutations have been suggested here today. I think the “promiscuous” lone wolf is a cliche, too, and not well suited for today’s mean streets.
Great topic and question. I started out with lone wolfs in all 3 of my series, but within the first book gave my character a love interest in 2 of the series. I was 12 books in and content to let it continue, but readers wanted a wedding, so I married them in book 13. My lone wolf in the long series is a female protag. I wonder if there’s greater pressure to see the female protag in a committed relationship versus the male protag? Regardless, you have to write what suits you and hope it suits your readers too.
Interesting question… V. I. Warshawski had a number of lovers, but no marriage. Kinsey Millhone is twice divorced. Both remain loners at heart, I think.
This may be a long shot but I wonder if many of these novels serve as fodder for a fantasy world of ‘life without women’ or at least the responsibility that they represent. Relationships so often imply a nanny sort of standing, with the wife in the background correcting or holding back the MC. ‘Mom’ is back and she’s going to tell everyone how to behave. (Not saying this is what a good marriage should be like…) I think this is part of what is irritating about the kidnapping scenario. The MC is now responsible for this woman and his agenda is a little spoiled by it. Maybe some of this is unavoidable, but I say make your love interest someone who makes your MC into more than he is, (and not less) maybe more of what already makes him a great character. Who does he need to be and can’t become on his own?
I’m a mystery reader rather than a thriller reader, and Dorothy Sayers wrangles with this idea all through Busman’s Honeymoon, forcing Lord Peter and Harriet to come to terms with Peter’s personal responsibility to pursue a case to the end, even on their honeymoon.
I am also a big fan of Laurie King’s Sherlock/Russell series which involves Holmes getting married. Probably not a series for hard-boiled crime readers, but it works well because Holmes is always up to something surprising. He disappears, reappears in costume, takes off again pursuing his own plans, gets into arguments with his wife and treats her as a more sympathetic Watson, mostly by being an annoying step ahead. They typically spend a good deal of the story apart and come together again before the end. It’s a satisfying way to keep the marriage and the mystery alive.
LeAnne, good observation. I definitely think in the 50s and 60s, the hardboiled hero was a “casual” womanizer, that is, the women usually came on to him and he let it happen…sometimes the woman became the femme fatale.
I like the idea of making the MC more, not less.
It’s my view that even with a womanizer or a one night stand there is responsibility, only the parties involved are not choosing to take on that responsibility. Responsibility can appear as a killjoy but can also be a path to new rewards in life. I suppose that’s just the maturity that some others have mentioned when a character goes from single to married.
Late to the party (as usual). This won’t help you with your problem, either, since I started out as free-standing novels, not series. But the comments have been interesting.