Fiction writers in general and mystery writers in particular ask their readers to suspend disbelief and enter into the story world of their characters. Why mystery writers in particular? Well, unless you’re writing true crime, chances are those body drops are unlikely to happen in the real world. Craig Johnson, who writes the Longmire series, has confessed that he sets every other book away from fictional Absaroka County because, ‘what are the odds that in the least populated county in the least populated state’, the sheriff is tripping over enough bodies to populate a long-running series?
Cozy and traditional mystery writers face the same dilemma. At least Longmire is a sheriff. His job is to trip over bodies. But what about your average pastry chef, restauranteur, or librarian? There’s not much chance realistically they will cross paths with the deceased on a regular basis, much less successfully pursue the killer without the help of the police. What’s a writer to do? Make a pact with the reader, of course. If the reader will suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the premise, the writer will deliver a fun and suspenseful story within the parameters of an altered reality. Everyone benefits.
This is a double-edged sword when the writer is successfully writing a long-term series. Authors solve it differently. Readers expect body drops in mysteries and kindly overlook the death toll in small towns. Although it’s uncertain if they would consider moving to say, Cabot Cove, ME, where newcomers have a better than even chance of ending up dead. Amateur sleuths give readers an opportunity to exercise their own powers of observation, deduction, and induction. What should be unbelievable, in the hands of a skilled writer who deftly plants clues, becomes logical and believable as the reader and the sleuth partner throughout the book.
Character lifespan is the second, sharp side of a long-running successful series. People age. Protagonist’s age. Sue Grafton handled this by having her character, Kinsey Millhone age by weeks rather than years. Over the course of 25 books, Kinsey aged very little. This required the author to dial back technology, but it worked because it was true to the story. Tie something in your character’s life to a date certain event, and, if you are lucky enough to find success, you may have created a problem.
P.D. James aged Adam Dalgleish realistically. He advanced in his profession and in his external wealth trappings on pace with the span of years the books cover. Other novelists, whom I will not name here were not so prescient. One introduced a character with memories that began in WWII during the blitz. Based on the storyline, he would be 85 now. A bit long in the tooth for his job. Likewise, another character is identified by service in Viet Nam. Those of us old enough to have been around during that war recognize by the battle dates that the character would be 77 in story years. What are the odds this character is continuing to believably put himself in the path of speeding bullets?
What’s the solution? Frankly, I hope I have the problem someday. As I currently don’t, perhaps I can hazard two suggestions as a reader. First and always, write well enough that readers want to participate in the story and suspend disbelief. Second, hedge your bets. Be nebulous. Don’t tie characters to a specific, easily datable, timeline. That way they can grow in story time and not require any suspension of disbelief.
Readers, do you mentally age characters based on events in the books?
Writers, how do you handle character aging?
 Conversation with Craig Johnson in Depth of Winter – statement paraphrased for brevity.