Somebody once told me–apologies for forgetting who–that the longest-running series are the ones with the least character development. I thought about this recently, as I remembered back a meeting with my publisher to discuss plans for my second book, THE GUILTY, as well as long-term plans for future books in my Henry Parker series. One of the things we discussed was “World Building.” Specifically the importance of creating a universe that is constantly evolving, while staying true to the rules the authors has established. While world building is most commonly associated with fantasy and science fiction, it’s an incredibly important aspect for any series, especially a budding one, where the hope is to both entice new readers while sating fans who’ve been there from the beginning. As an author, it goes against creative impulse to begin every book with a “previously on…” in order to let new readers (or forgetful old ones) catch up, yet you have to approach almost every book with the hopes of drawing from both wells.
My fifth novel, THE DARKNESS, is complete, and the fourth, THE FURY, has been in the can for a few months. In these two books I continued the stories of several main and supporting characters from my first three, while adding a few new characters and major subplots into the fray. I’m about to start work on THE INVITED, the sith in the series, and am trying to accomplish the same thing while continuing to make Henry’s story different yet familiar enough to draw in new fans while satisfying long time reader. Only now I have five books worth of characters and stories to draw from. It opens up my characters’ worlds to more possibilities, but also narrows what I can do with them. I’ve set certain rules, established behavioral patterns, and these must be adhered to.
Several years ago I attended the Romantic Times Booklovers convention, and I recall Jim Butcher stating on a panel that when sitting down to write STORM FRONT, he had the Harry Dresden series plotted out through twenty books. Right now I have my series plotted through six, with ideas for seven percolating. I don’t know, at this point, how many books the series will encompass. Part of it depends on readers. I have seven under contract, and if readers are still hungry for more beyond that and my sales figures support it, chances are there will be more. Certainly at some point I’d like to write something non-series, but as long as there are stories to tell with these characters I’m all for keeping them going. But for how long?
Many authors have written crime series that have gone on for well over ten years, sometimes more and, if anything, are more popular than ever (Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum come to mind). These authors still receive strong reviews for their work, regularly top the bestseller lists, and the books stay fresh. But with so many books in a series, how much character development can there be?
The characters in THE FURY an THE DARKNESS wear their scars, both mental and physical, from the first three books in the series. Yet at some point, in a crime series, if the characters wear their scars on their sleeves to a wholly realistic degree, they’d either be dead or going insane, maybe both. Perhaps Lee Child’s Jack Reacher can get away with this, partly because he’s a badass mofo, but he’s a badass to such a degree that scars (physical, at least) are expected. For characters who are cops, reporters, bounty hunters, or hold any one of numerous other dangerous professions, at some point the odds would catch up to them. If the author establishes that a forensic anthropologist or sports agent can be in fatal danger in every book, the reader accepts that as part of the universe. But that means they accept there is something slightly implausible about that universe as a whole, since I doubt many FAs get their degrees with the expectations of being menaced by murderous psychopaths. For the most part readers are willing to accept these credulity strains, provided the author is conistent within the universe they’ve created.
So as an author, how much development do you need to stay true to the character? And how much can you ignore certain implausibilities to create a consistent universe?
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