We’ve been having a vibrant craft discussion on the Guppies Listserv centered on writing the mystery series. For those who don’t know,is an Internet chapter of . Although I’m more lurker than participant, I’ve recently begun a new series, so I’ve filled several notebooks with information, reminders and cross-references that I gleaned from the discussion.
I anticipate the series to consist of twelve books and have paragraph outlines for each. As part of my research, I decided to revisit long-running series, old and new, that I have enjoyed, to see how they adhered to the advice from the Guppy commenters. It’s a great trip down memory lane. Reading a series as a whole is an eye opener as bits and pieces that are forgotten in the lapse of time between books fall into place and information gleaned as characters mature becomes meaningful, and sometimes bittersweet when you know much loved secondary characters will be leaving. There was also a caution to be learned.
Most of the series I read are in real time. For a writer who writes in real time, dating characters can be a tricky. Tying your characters’ ages to a significant event can ultimately age them out of the lead. In one series I revisited the early books referenced the character’s memories of WWII. He was ten at the time and the event significant enough that the reader can date it to 1941. The writer has stopped referring to the character’s childhood memories, which is good, because he is still employed by a police agency and sleuthing in 2019.
Other books in my favorite series refer to characters’ service in Viet Nam or the Gulf War, or presence in the town of Lockerbie, or on the mound at the Twin Towers, in Iraq or Iran. All of those references are fine, in their own time, but they are very quickly aging characters in real time. It’s great shorthand for a writer. Those few phrases establish so much about a character. They’ve given service to their country, they’ve been in bad situations, and they are of a certain age. Unfortunately, if the series continues, the character is also in danger of aging out.
We discussed this at our local library book club. Members easily recalled the names of characters who were tied to events and quickly calculated their ages. A few confessed to no longer reading some series because they had visions of aging detectives stooped and stumbling trying to solve crimes even though their personal description was at odds with the one on the page. Yet when asked how old their favorite characters were that weren’t tied to significant events few had hard dates to offer. Most guessed around 30 or 40 depending on the book. Oddly enough if the book offered a hero and a heroine, the readers often defined the ages by the difference between the two. The moderator asked if the non-event dated characters aged. Very few of the group were sure and most said no.
Readers and writers, do you keep a mental birthday list of your favorite series characters? How do you know if they have aged?