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?

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Who needs to hang it up?

by Michelle Gagnon

This is an ongoing discussion on one of the message boards I frequent, and I thought it was an interesting one. How long can a series continue before it sinks under its own weight?

When readers have latched on to a character or series, and whatever book follows in the progression is guaranteed to make the bestsellers’ lists, both publishers and authors are loathe to say Sayonara. But there are popular series out there that are starting to look a bit long in the tooth. And would those writers be better served by branching out into new territory? After all, if their name is established, wouldn’t most of their fan base follow them on whatever new venture they chose?

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m a huge
John Sandford fan, and if he were to suddenly announce that Lucas Davenport was vanishing into the ether, I would be disappointed. Same with Jack Reacher, but for different reasons. What I like about Sandford’s books is that he has managed to keep them freash and interesting by varying the plots: some are more like spy novels, other focus on heists or serial killers. Plus, Lucas Davenport is one of the rare series characters who has actually evolved. I liked him at the beginning, but by allowing him to age and learn from life experience, I’m far more invested in him than I would be otherwise.

Paradoxically, the opposite holds true for Jack Reacher. He never changes. Thirteen books in, he still travels with nothing but the clothing on his back and a fold up toothbrush. And apparently he’s discovered that mythical fountain of youth, since he can still destroy pretty much anyone in a fight regardless of the fact that he must be approaching fifty by now. And yet, I don’t care. (I will say, however, that I secretly hope Lee Child someday branches off into a side series featuring Frances Neagley. Particularly after Bad Luck and Trouble, I want to know more about her and that company she runs). It’s the reason the Law and Order franchise is so consistently successful: you know what to expect, and Child always delivers it. He has the added liberty of being able to take Reacher anywhere in the world, from small towns to metropolises, and there’s no reason for him not to be there since he’s not locked into a job, tied to anyone or anything.

Others, however, have not been as fortunate. There are series whose books I devoured for five, ten, even fifteen books. But they gradually devolved into something that was either implausible or just plain silly. How long can you maintain a love triangle that never gets resolved? And for series set in small towns, how are we supposed to swallow the fact that their homicide rate rivals Detroit’s? I loved Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, but after six books it was starting to suffer from Cabot Cove Syndrome: how could so many terrible things happen in a rural Georgia county? Who would ever move there with that level of crime? Property values must have been in the basement after the third serial killer in as many years passed through. Moving the series to Atlanta and combining it with her other series revitalized it for me.

So let’s hear it: who needs to hang it up? And what series have defied the odds and held your interest?

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