Madeleine Robins April 26th, 2007
Over the weekend I read a thriller which got me thinking about the pitfalls of writing series with continuing characters. I’m two and a half books into a series with a bunch of continuing characters, so this is a question of more than usual interest to me. My problem with this book and this character is that over the course of the dozen-or-more books in which he has appeared he has become an unpleasant guy to spend 350 pages with. The character (Alex Delaware, in Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman) is a child psychiatrist who gets drawn into LA police cases. In the first book or two of the series, he was actively working with kids, and his empathy for his patients and the people he encountered (even the bad guys) was palpable. It made a nice counterpoint for the carnage and dysfunction of the killers and rapists and con men who showed up in the books. Now he seems cynical and angry and depressed, and we don’t get to see him being a caring professional, because he mostly lives on his investments now (gives him more time to solve crimes, but cuts down on his human side). People change, sure, and given the unpleasant and downright dangerous situations Delaware gets into, it’s not surprising that he’s hardened somewhat. But I can see a point coming where I won’t want to pick up another of these books because the character has become too jaded and bitter. If I were Kellerman, in the next book I’d have Delaware put in some serious time with some kids, to remind us what makes him an interesting, complex and humane guy.
Still, the question remains: how do you keep a character from turning into someone your readers (and you) won’t want to spend time with? I have no answers here–I’m still in the making-it-up-as-I-go-along phase.
When I watch House I am constantly amazed that the writers have created this wonderful, horrid, brilliant guy who is absolutely rivetting to watch. Even when the medical stuff lags (and it has lately) the characters are such fun. With House, the character work is not so much about seeing him grow and change (although he does, in teensy increments) as to see new facets of his horridness revealed and very occasionally, glimpses of his better self. And the people around him change and grow and relate to each other, and that keeps them fresh. I keep showing up to watch House because I’m still learning about his character, and I guess that’s one way to do it: just keep peeling back the layers of the onion.
TV is not, of course, always a good model (although TV writers are constantly dealing with continuing characters, so the temptation to look there is pretty powerful). When I was a kid the characters of continuing players were usually fixed in stone: the Cartwright brothers, for example, loved and lost on a regular basis but never seemed affected by the love or the loss. Now TV stories are presumed to have character arcs as well as story arcs–Buffy is not the same girl in season seven as she was in season one. But when you’re writing a book with continuing characters and each book is a story in and of itself, how much do you want your characters to be affected, in book two, by what happened to them in book one? How different do you want your characters to be in book ten from what they were like in book two?
Remember, I guess, what the character’s core values are. What made you interested in writing about them in the first place? Because that’s probably what hooked your readers, too.
Anyone got any thoughts?