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“May 16, 2017 – The Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) today announced the finalists of the second annual Star Award, given to authors of published women’s fiction. Six finalists were chosen in two categories, General and Outstanding Debut. The winners of the Star Award will be announced at the WFWA Retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 23, 2017.” In the general category, WWK’s Carla Damron was one of three finalist for her novel, The Stone Necklace. Go to Carladamron.com for more information. Congratulations, Carla!

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Warren Bull's new Lincoln mystery, Abraham Lincoln In Court & Campaign has been released. Look for the Kindle version on February 3.

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

In addition, our prolific KM will have the following shorts published as well: "Sight Unseen" in Fish Out of Water, Guppie (SinC) anthology, just released, and "Making Tracks" in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon anthology, October 2017.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Once a Kappa" was published as a finalist in the Southern Writer's Magazine annual short story contest issue. Mysterical-E published her "Double Crust Corpse" in the Fall 2016 issue. "Baby Killer" will appear in the 2017 solar eclipse anthology Day of the Dark to be published this summer prior to the eclipse in August.

James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for order.
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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Choosing Continuing Series Characters

Every novelist who writes a sequel or series has to choose which characters from the first (or second or third) should have a continuing role and which should fade into history. The main character is an obvious choice for a continuing role. Can you imagine Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Series” without Kinsey Milhone? Neither can I. However, Clive Cussler managed over time to supplant his aging protagonist, Dirk Pitt, with his son, Dirk Pitt, Jr. But I digress; let’s assume your protagonist will continue to have the lead role. Who else do we keep, and why?

If the novels are cozy mysteries set in a small town or village, the author can keep everyone—until the author chooses to kill them off, that is, because the mortality rate in these places is pretty darn high. Fortunately, authors can easily replace the dead in the next volume in the series.

I don’t plot in advance; I’m a pantser. As I started writing the second in the Seamus McCree series (Bad Policy, which turned out to be the first published), I faced the question of who should get pink slips and whose contracts I should extend. Seamus’s son, Paddy, was a favorite of many readers. They enjoyed the father-son banter and occasional head-butting. I started with the premise I wanted to keep Paddy and he, of course, still had his cats, Cheech and Chong, so they got a free pass.

I wanted to write about insurance fraud, and I had introduced as a side character a man who owned an insurance agency. I killed him off. Because he was living in a town fifty miles from where Seamus lived, I had the opportunity to retain a number of local characters who readers enjoyed or would likely remember. First was Charlene—a sassy waitress. Next was her now boyfriend, Bear—a sheriff’s deputy. Charlene was perfect to fill in the local gossip, and Bear provided the local police angle. As a bonus, readers would see their relationship advance. Perfect, said the pantser.

The insurance agency had a secretary who Seamus thought of as Miss Smiles. Since her boss died early that allowed her space for a bigger role. The insurance fraud involved annuities, which allowed me to return a couple of folks from the local insurance company.

All these reflections allowed me to better understand why people like cozies: all those characters they get to know and love, or dislike, or whatever the author wants the reader to feel.

In the first manuscript I had introduced a nosy neighbor, Mrs. Keenan, and her wonderful Golden Retriever, Alice. When I needed someone to report on strange happenings while Seamus was away from home, I thought “who better than Mrs. Keenan?” I even gave Alice a larger role as an alert watchdog.

The first book introduced a love interest for Seamus, who had been divorced for many years. Abigail Hancock got a return role, but as often happens with love interests, not everything went as Seamus planned.

What I quickly discovered was that if I had a particular role to fill and I already had a character from the first book, there was no reason to create a new character as long as the first one made sense.

In the next book (Cabin Fever 3/2014) I changed locales. I cut loose all the now non-locals with small roles; those roles I needed to fill with new characters. I knew I wanted Paddy to participate in the story and sure enough found a way to involve him. The same thing happened with Abigail Hancock, the main love interest (the situation worsened—or did it?). As I wrote, I found ways to bring back a few of the previous characters for cameo roles. Readers liked that.

I am almost finished writing the first draft of the next in the series. I’ve developed some rules I now use.

1. Readers expect Paddy to have a significant role. Seamus would not be Seamus without Paddy. They want to see how the two of them deal with each other as father and son and as colleagues in solving problems.

2. Readers want Seamus to have a love interest—they don’t necessarily agree on who that should be.

3. A certain group of readers strongly appreciated Seamus’s mother in BAD POLICY. They were disappointed to discover the CABIN FEVER story did not lend itself to including her. However, in the edits I was able to include a closing bit to remind those people of Trudy McCree. She even gets the last word, which is what you would expect from her.

4. Don’t create a new persona when you already have someone at the ready to fill a role. People are always saying, “It’s a small world.” In my fiction, I want readers to smile when someone they’ve met before reappears. However, I must clue in new readers into the prior relationship is such a way that they feel comfortable (not a deus ex machina event) and continuing readers aren’t bored.

5. Some roles are useful to have. The gossip who knows everything that’s happening is one, but when changing locales, it’s important to find new kinds of players to fit the same role. Much better when I changed location from Chillicothe, Ohio to the Upper Peninsula Northwoods to replace Charlene, the sassy waitress, with Owen, the octogenarian woodsman, than to find another sassy waitress in the new town.

Those of you who are ahead of me in this writing game can let me know what I’ve missed. Readers, what do you like or not like about continuing side characters?


~ Jim

19 comments:

KM said...

Thanks for thinking this through and laying it out for us. I use a number of continuing characters in my series, starting with the protagonist, Jesse Damon, who is on parole after spending nearly 20 years in prison on a murder conviction. Since Jesse pretty much stays put (he can't leave the state, he doesn't have a car and he knows how difficult it would be to get another decent job)the series really lends itself to repeat characters.

Warren Bull said...

Side characters can help the protagonist develop and change over time. Antagonists can become neutral and eventually friends. A former love interest can become a current love interest or can marry someone else.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

KM,

I hadn't thought about the advantages of Jesse having a virtual leg chain that keeps him in the area. You're right that is a perfect set up for great continuing characters.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I feel the need to add new characters to my series, but it also means that some of the characters from the first book and the second need to disappear for a while at least because I need new characters and there's a limit to how many characters a book can hold. Of course, there are several characters who need to come back. They're a part of the community I've built, especially like you mentioned, Jim, those who gossip and leave clues and red herrings. One character I liked in the first book and is only vaguely referred to again, I'm bringing back in a more active role in the fourth.

As for love interest, I feel that's important in a cozy and other mystery series, too. Catherine Jewell's love interest is the police chief, a relationship that is developing slowly from antagonism at the beginning, to respect, to love. I have people bugging me because it's not developing quickly enough to love.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Gloria,

Welcome to the world of want it now. But as a writer, we know that if we give readers what they want when they want it they will in the end be disappointed.

I suggest you wait at least as many books at Janet Evanovitch has in having Stephanie Plum decide between Morelli and Ranger.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

Great post, Jim, I'll be thinking differently about the supporting characters in a mystery, keeping in mind the roles they play.
Sometimes the sidekicks in a story can be more fun than the main character. I wish Janet Evanovich would give Grandma Mazur her own book....

E. B. Davis said...

I've been thinking about the plot to my next-in-series and realized the value in continuing a character with a small part in my first book. To continue the backstory from the first book, I assumed my main character and her two sidekicks would continue in the next books, but when I plotted the second book, I realized that the character in the first book, who only had a small role, would be perfect for a larger role in the second book. I do worry about the "small world" of it all, but then on the Outer Banks, it is a small world of known characters. I also have my cops already in place on Bodie and Hatteras Islands, so they will continue their roles, as will my angels and demons--who are always there!

Marni Graff said...

eB! This idea of the Cabot Cove Curse came up,at Bouchercon at a panel I did Everyone agreed Jeesica Fletcher was the draw and readers suspend disbelief when they are engaged in a series. In my Nora Tierney series, I move her around .England a bit. As for characters, those friends who play a major role in one book can be great supporting characters in a second or third because readers are already engaged and want to follow their relationship to your protagonist. I call them my "stable" of characters!

Sarah Henning said...

I like how you break this down, Jim. I think we all do this subconsciously when thinking about what *could* happen next, but I've never really sat down and thought about the whys of my choices in this way. Great idea.

Kara Cerise said...

I enjoy reading series with continuing secondary characters because they become old friends and I want to learn how they change and grow over time.

Some authors write short stories from a secondary character’s point of view in between books. I think this is brilliant because it’s a chance to see the main character through another character’s eyes and it keeps readers interested in the series.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Shari,

I'm with you about some sidekicks. I can think of a number of series where a sidekick got his own series: John Sandford spun off "F$cking Flowers" into his own, which he now co-writes with some former journal pals.

I enjoy creating side characters that people hope will come back (like Evanovich's Grandma Mazur.

~ Jim

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

EB & Marni,

As long as something is well written readers are happy to suspend reality for the story. It's only when they get bored and start thinking that the objections show up.

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Kara,

For those who write short stories this is a great idea. It also allows fans to stay involved between the yearly releases.

I wrote one that starred Abigail with Seamus in a secondary role. However, it never found a home. Maybe I'll take a look and see if there is something there I can tweak and make it publishable.

~ Jim

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I'm working on my first ones.

--Brenda W.

Polly Iyer said...

Great post, Jim. There are some series I've read where I wish a few of the characters would be dropped. I only have one series. I'm working on the third book and have decided this will probably be my last. In the first book, my heroine's parents were a big part of the story. They weren't very likeable. When writing the second book, I started to include them, but I couldn't stand either of them and kept them out of the story. Diana mentions them from time to time, but I have no intention of bringing them back. My hero is a cop, so his team is part of the ongoing saga.

Norma Huss said...

Jim, I realize I'm doing the same thing. For my second in the series I've dropped those immediately involved in the murder since I'm moving the location slightly, from inside the city to just outside the city limits (so the reenactment doesn't have to live with the city rules). I kept three beside the protagonist. One is a young gal who had a bit of emotional problems in book one, so she was a natural to have even more in book two and become more involved in the suspect list. The others were the protagonist's sister (and major combination co-sleuth and antagonist). The other was the old guy who really wants to become more interested in my old female protagonist. (Gotta keep him.)

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Polly,

You can always kill the parents off - gets rid of them and may even make them more sympathetic!

Norma,

Sounds like you've got a good plan going for you.

~ Jim

Christine said...

Great post, Jim. This definitely provides good food for thought! I'd love to see a post (and reader comments) on what makes a protagonist a "keeper" for a mystery series: such as specific personality traits and a job that allows them to stumble over bodies frequently.

My books feature ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, so I tend to start with a fresh batch of characters each time -- but I'm intrigued by those mystery series where I can read multiple books and still love returning to the same place and same characters.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Christine,

Thanks for the idea for a future topic regarding what makes a protagonist a "keeper." I'll keep that one in mind, unless one of my fellow WWK bloggers gets to it first. :)

~ Jim