The Ingredients of a Great Series Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

Ahem.

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).

Test Marketing

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?

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How I Developed My Series Hero

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m happy to announce the release of my new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Hammer. It begins on a posh beach at Malibu, and ends just up the coast at Paradise Cove. In between a lot of stuff happens. (This is called a plot summary).

Today, I thought I’d say a little bit about how I came up with Romeo as my series hero.

I’d long wanted to write about a lone-wolf, hard-boiled seeker of justice. I’ve always loved this famous Raymond Chandler quote about the classic PI:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

But I did not want to do another PI character. I love ’em, but we have enough of them. So I conceived a backstory that would cause a man to be on the run and off the grid. With a changed name. And who spent a number of years as a cage fighter.

What else could I add to make him more interesting for me? I decided to include my love of philosophy. I was nearly a philosophy major in college. But freshman year I was in a big philosophy class, with the smaller classroom discussions taught by a TA. This guy wore sandals and smoked Camels (you could smoke in the classrooms back then). He would take out a fresh cig as he spoke, hold it between two fingers, then strike a match, all while talking. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes as he went off on a metaphysical tangent. We students would watch the match burn down, waiting until it hit his fingers, which it inevitably did, and he’d shake the match vigorously to put it out—still talking! He’d drop the dead match on the floor and begin the process all over again. It always took him 2 – 4 matches to light up.

And I thought, if that’s what I might become as a philosophy major, maybe I ought to try something else.

But I digress. I’ve always loved philosophy and theology and thinking about deep things, especially in times of crisis. Give me Epictetus when things aren’t going my way, or Pascal when reflecting on ultimate truth. I wanted my series hero to be like that. So I made him a genius, a kid who was accepted to Yale at age fourteen. But then bad things happened … and we begin with Mike Romeo in Romeo’s Rules, in the present, with a tattoo on his forearm: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Truth Conquers All Things.

Plus, he likes flowers.

Most of all, though, he has that code Chandler wrote about. And at some point it struck me that I had a model for him in the back of my mind all along.

I was a mere pup when the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel was popular. But the character, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) was cool. (A paladin was a knight known for heroic deeds and the code of chivalry).

Paladin lived in the luxurious Carleton Hotel in San Francisco. There he ate the finest foods, sipped the finest brandy, and escorted the finest women to the opera. He could speak on virtually any subject.

But he was also a gun for hire. He’d go out on jobs, donning his all-black duds and six guns. His holster had a chess knight on it. Ditto his card.

The great thing about this western, unlike, say, Gunsmoke, was that Paladin very rarely shot anyone! Instead, he used his wits to outfox bad guys, or get good guys to do the right thing.

Most of all he lived by his code. One part of that code, which Mike Romeo shares, is that if someone is being bullied, justice demands the paladin step in and stop it. Here’s a clip from an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel. Paladin has just arrived in a town to meet his employer for the first time.

That’s Paladin. And that’s the sort of hero I had in mind when I conceived Mike Romeo.

Which makes writing the series fun for me. Maybe that’s the biggest key of all. You can put your hero through all sorts of tests. You can have him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But if he’s not someone you’d like to hang out with, the series can turn into a slog.

Fortunately, Mike Romeo is bringing me joy.

The Romeo’s Hammer is available here:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

So….let’s talk series characters. Do you have one? How did you come up with him or her?

OR

Who is your favorite series hero, and why?

 

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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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