Monday, October 6, 2014

Series, Part II

Continuing our discussion, this time focusing on series.
I just drove to Ohio and back to South Carolina with the audios of two books in a well-known and praised series of 23 books. My cousin has extolled the series’ virtues endlessly, and though we have different tastes, I read some reviews and thought we might be on the same page with this one. I tried to find the earliest book, but it hadn’t been recorded, so I got later books from my library. S N O R E. I mean really, really boring. The writing was excellent. That wasn’t the problem.
Nothing happened, and I listened to three discs of both books before I quit and went into deep thought about a book I haven’t written yet.
I won’t trash another writer, but when I got home, I read the reviews of the books I’d taken with me, and I wasn’t alone. Many reviewers were pained to write that the author they loved should drop the series because it had run its course. I wish I had listened to an earlier book, and I may sometime in the future, but for now, there are so many other books I want to read, that author and that series will have to wait.
This is my problem with series. How does an author keep the story and the characters fresh?
Jeffrey Deaver is another author who writes series and standalones. Again, like Robert Ludlum, his Lincoln Rhyme series took off, and to date, he’s written eleven books with Rhyme and Amelia Sachs. The book broke a barrier because Rhyme is a quadriplegic. I fell in love with him in book one, felt his angst at his situation. BUT, in my opinion, Deaver lost the essence of Rhyme in the fourth and fifth books. (I can’t say anything about later books because I haven’t read them.) I’m not saying the books weren’t terrific. They were, because Deaver is the consummate thriller writer. However, the character got lost in the intricate plot and became just another character, not the fascinating Rhyme of the earlier books. Again, keeping a character fresh in subsequent books isn’t easy. The reader can’t know the protagonist/s completely in early books, leaving nothing to explore in later releases. Readers want growth. Maybe this was my perception only, but I call ’em as I see ’em.
Aside from creating an exciting plot, had I left anything new to learn about my two protagonists in Backlash, the latest entry in my series? Are they growing? Was I repeating my plots? Remember, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch said that all plots are a variation of one of seven basic themes. Check out this interesting article and the comments to see if you agree:
How do you feel about your favorite series? Have the authors kept the writing and characters original. Have the plots remained innovative, or have they become repetitious? Let us know.


For me, series work best when the main character has a reason to be involved with crime, such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or Kovac and Liska (Tami Hoag’s occasional repeat characters). That’s probably because I like action and suspense more than figuring out the mystery, or puzzle. I always preferred Margery Allingham’s Inspector Campion to Agatha Christie’s Marple or Poirot.
Still, for me to follow a series, the character usually has to be special. He or she has to be at least as important as the plot—think Joe Pike. If he’s in it, I’ll get the book. Of course, if Robert Crais wrote it, I’ll probably want the book anyway. :-) Harry Bosch is another one.
There’s another very popular writer whose books I enjoy but not because of the series character, whom I’m kind of so-so about. It’s because the plots are riveting, and often another character has a role at least as big as that of the series detective. They’re a little different from other series, and I look for the books by the author’s name. It doesn’t matter if it’s part of the series.
Something else I thought about—there seem to be far fewer female protagonists in crime series. I did a Google search for thriller series protagonists and came up with loads of men, but not many women. I found Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta, and Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salandar, but males far outnumber them. However, mystery series protagonists turned up many women, from Miss Marple to Kinsey Milhone to Nancy Drew. Stephanie Plum has her own place, somewhere in between mystery and thriller.
I wonder about the differences. Thrillers generally have more action, while mysteries may be more cerebral. Are women considered too soft for thrillers? More civilized? More intellectual and less physical? What do you think?


  1. I'm interested in the characters. A great plot is wonderful, but there must be an action/reaction that engages the MCs. If they don't react, why should I? This applies to any subgenre. Thriller and cozy writers make the mistake equally.

    The best books have plots that evolve from an event in the characters' lives so it seems natural that they are involved. They can't help but be involved because the mystery originates as a cause or result of their actions. Julia Spenser-Fleming's puts her two main characters through hell as their lives evolve. Her plots stem naturally from their lives. Hank Ryan's new series achieves that as well even those her MCs' professions bring the plot into being, their interpersonal relationship is effected.

    There has to be a character arc in each book for all continuing characters.

    Although I like action, thrillers often miss character development. It is as if the characters are flat and without emotional reaction. Even police, who are operating professionally, can't be immune to emotional reaction (and we know from real life that they aren't immune).

    As in the case of many cozies, the main character hums along. The mysteries are merely adventurous outings that don't seem to effect the MC personally. That's when the staleness sets in. Of course, there are those readers who like that equilibrium the MC provides. After reading too many thrillers, I turn to those cozies. I like a cross-section of genres.

    I think when a writer becomes bored with her characters--it's time to quit.

  2. I think for a series to work there needs to be an overarching story arc beyond the arc in the individual book. Some authors are successful with an unchanging character but they are fewer in number

  3. There's nothing like finding a new series with a character that you love! But I have to admit, sometimes it gets a bit stale. And sometimes I suspect that once an author has a following, s/he goes to the file drawer and pulls out earlier works that weren't originally accepted (for good reason) and plunks them in front of unsuspecting readers.

  4. I've hit that wall with several series where the main character doesn't change. Sometimes that's OK, especially with a light read, but in that case, and I can think of two series in particular (which I will not name) I find that I'm not exactly rushing out to buy the books anymore. I feel like I'm reading cartoon scripts rather than novels.

  5. I agree about stale characters that have stopped growing. Good series characters must be extremely difficult to create and continue to develop in book after book. But series still need good plots that hold readers' attention. Fortunately, there are all kinds of characters and plots out there, and as readers or authors, we have choices.

    Also, thanks for having us on the blog.

  6. I look at starting a mystery (as a reader) like getting in the car with someone about to take a long trip. Do I want to spend 20 hours with them? Are they interesting enough? If not, it doesn't matter what happens plot-wise. I won't make it to the next rest stop if I'm not engaged with the protagonist.

  7. And yet, Carla, if we leave room for the protagonist to grow, she/he may start out as less than likeable. It's tough to make someone interesting enough to overcome being unlikeable, but it can be done. I always go back to Scarlett O'Hara, a fascinating character but not one I'd want for a friend.

  8. I'm with Carla. If I don't like the character, I can't read very far into the book. I just tried a series my cousin raves about. I read two later books, and I have to say I almost fell asleep and couldn't finish. I like to learn something new about the characters in each book. That goes double for writing a series character. If I'm bored with my character, I'm sure my readers will be too. Series are hard to write, and after a while, the character becomes tedious. I hope I don't go long enough to reach that point.