Continuing a Character

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?

27 Responses to “Continuing a Character”

  1. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 26 Apr 2007 at 2:17 pm

    I think the difference we’re talking here is between arc characters, reset button characters and blur characters.

    Arc characters have their story told in an arc: They’re born, they grow up, they have significant events in their lives, and finally they die, only occasionally of old age.

    Reset button characters are caught in some significant time in their lives and always start the story from the same place. If they have any history from previous stories, it’s always either their first one or two stories and all the other sequels are basically alternate futures after that initial starting point. James Bond does a lot of this, but the ultimate reset button character is Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. If she were an arc character, not only would she likely be in a mental institution after ten years of weekly murders, but Cabot Cove would be swarming with FBI as the it’s the murder capital of the world and Jessica would never be let out of questioning due to her involvement with so many suspicious deaths. But the writers of the show very clearly set down in the series bible that as of the beginning of any episode, Jessica Fletcher is simply an elderly mystery writer and this week’s murder is the first murder she’s ever encountered.

    Halfway between arc characters and reset button characters are blurred characters, who are assumed to have a history of all their previous stories, but it’s a blurred melange of all of them, glossing over the fact that their book series has lasted forty years and the character has at most aged ten.

    Take for example Spiderman. He shows up as a high school student in the early sixties, and now forty-five years later, is at most a late twenty-something. They’ve made a big deal ages back about his wedding to Mary Jane, but we’ve yet to see his turning-thirty crisis (or maybe we have with the unmasking plotline I understand’s come up in the past couple years–in any case, it’s taken a while).

    Most comic book characters are blurred, but film adaptations generally cut the blur into an arc. For example, the new Spiderman movies are a triptych of Peter Parker as high school student, college student, and now young man with his first job, mixed of course with the continuous job of being Spiderman.

    If you’re going to continue a character after their first one or two stories, you need to figure out which fashion you intend to continue them in.

  2. Marie Brennanon 26 Apr 2007 at 3:19 pm

    I was actually just thinking about this in the context of a role-playing game. I’m involved in one monthly game that was originally structured as a one-year “season,” with room to continue onward if it seemed to be going strong. We’re coming up on the end of that season now, and it seems likely there will be a second one, so I’ve been putting some thought into my own character, and what I would want to do with her after this. Some things about her haven’t changed; she’s still a quaking coward who only rarely has the guts to throw herself into danger, and who mostly should not do that because she’ll go splat if she does. But she’s gone from being a weak enchanter working off half-remembered lessons from her mysterious and horrible “aunt,” to a very powerful enchanter nearly on par with said aunt, and there’s a good chance that family plotline will be resolved by the end of this season. (Weird plot events temporarily gave her the courage to have somebody put a bullet between Auntie Anastasia’s eyes; the problem is, that didn’t kill her.) So there’s been a nice, clear arc, but I’m about to hit the end of how she can grow as a magical character. Where do I go from here that won’t either erase her weaknesses (turning her into someone who can hold her own in a fight) or amp up her power past the point of credibility? (Both of which are traps long-running series often fall into.)

    Of course, novel series and RPGs aren’t entirely analogous, since I’m not in control of the game; I’m one part of a collaborative whole, and constrained by what other people are doing. But I’m learning a lot about long-term character growth by participating in these games. I played one character for nearly four years; you’d better believe I had to find ways for her to grow as a person, without totally losing who she had been. And the most interesting part of it was figuring out how to retroactively re-interpret things that had already happened, to fit where I wanted to go next. I couldn’t go back and revise events from two years before.

    You’re talking about losing sympathy for a character because he becomes unlikeable, of course, and not every situation will suffer the kind of problem you’re describing. But I think it’s easy for readers to cease caring about a character if she changes in the wrong way, if she gets too powerful, or loses all her weaknesses, or turns into somebody totally unlike who she began as. (Just watch long-time Laurell K. Hamilton readers rant about Anita Blake for a classic example of this.) It helps to know from the outset that something is going to be a series; then you can build in layers of issues, and have the character work through them one or two at a time.

  3. Stephanie M.on 26 Apr 2007 at 3:50 pm

    That is exactly why I don’t like most TV shows, or book series that continue on indefinitely. I want stories and characters that have a beginning, that change and develop, and then have an appropriate end. If there’s no destination, then the journey is pointless, and therefore meaningless. Endings make what comes before them meaningful, and they pave the way for new things to be born.

    House manages the remarkable feat of being episodic in nature, but managing to work in character and story arcs. You can watch any episode without needing to see the one before it, but you are rewarded if you do watch it in order.

    House fans, represent!

  4. Carol Bergon 26 Apr 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Another House fan here. What a delicious, wretched character. And yet, as you’ve said, we see these teensy bits of humanity, and his terrible vulnerability that lurks beneath his wickedness. I think we are drawn by hope – maybe this week, he’ll break down and be kind. And, if not, then we’ll get to see some thoroughly enjoyable outrageous behavior.

    Works for me.


  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 27 Apr 2007 at 2:05 am

    Honestly, I don’t see House as wicked so much as an acid curmudgeon — he says all of the things most other people say behind closed doors because he can, both living with constant pain himself and seeing no reason to sugarcoat anything. If people don’t want his help, they can walk out the door, but since it’s a matter of life and death, they can put up and shut up.

    My sister’s a doctor and she’s told me stories of patients who come in and lie to her face and she has to pull a House-like “Yeah, right” when she calls them on their bullshit. Example: Young woman complaining of fainting, stomach pain and rotting teeth. Says she knows of no reason for these symptoms; does nothing unusual or unhealthy. Diagnosis: Yeah, right. You’re a bulemic. The stomach acid is rotting your teeth, you’re ODing on syrup of ipecac, and you’re fainting from hunger. And on top of that, you’re lying to your doctor. Which is another classic symptom.

  6. Seleneon 27 Apr 2007 at 3:03 am

    Am I the only one who doesn’t watch House? :-)

    I wonder if it’s possible to actually have the characters change during a series and not have some readers dislike that change? A complex, interesting character will likely attract readers for different reasons, it seems to me. OTOH, what can be more annoying than a character resolving some internal conflict in one novel, only to be faced with a “new” conflict in the next book, which in essence is just a reiteration of the old one?


  7. Terrion 27 Apr 2007 at 7:00 am

    I love watching House, purely for the characterisation (okay, and for Hugh Laurie. I’m shallow, I have no problems with admitting it). The patient-of-the-week plotlines are getting thin now (patient presents, misdiagnoses, crises, solutions), but there are depths to House that keep him interesting.

    On the other hand, I haven’t picked up a Delaware novel recently, and it’s for exactly the reason laid out; I don’t care about him any more. He’s becoming very bitter, and there’s no pay-off at the end, just more bitterness. He used to have contact with the world – Robin, patients, ex-colleagues. Now, except for Miles and whatshername, Petra?, he’s in a vacuum. He’s become one-dimensional, and it’s not an interesting dimension.

    I guess that’s the challenge; showing new facets of a character to keep them interesting, without fundamentally changing what made them fascinating in the first place.

  8. Madeleine Robinson 27 Apr 2007 at 10:15 am

    I think sometimes a writer mis-reads what makes a character compelling, and pushes the wrong stuff. The best example I know of this is Hannibal Lecter, who was genuinely interesting and scary in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs and then was morphed into a bad supervillain in Hannibal (suddenly he is the arbiter of taste, the guy who does everything better than everyone else, and is utterly justified in doing horrid things to the horrid people who were mean to him first). The worst thing was that Thomas Harris tried to give Lecter an origin story, something that would render Lecter comprehensible and sympathetic. But (to me, at least) a lot of Lecter’s attraction was that he was sui generis, sprung from nowhere.

    When the second Indiana Jones movie came out, I thought that the writers and directors had looked at the success of the first one and decided, “Okay, people clearly liked this, this, and this. So we’ll give ’em more of it.” But they miscalculated as to what had drawn people, and the second movie sucked. That’s what I think happens with characters sometimes: the author midunderstands what was appealing and popular about the character in the first place, pumps up the volumr on those things, and loses the character entirely.

    I do think there’s a particular challenge in writing continuing characters in thrillers and crime stories, since they deal so much in death and unpleasant milieus. On the other hand (returning again to TV) NYPD Blue started out with a corrupt, jaded, alcoholic detective and (by the end of the series) turned him into a gruff, seasoned, caring cop, the leader of the squad, etc. Granted, they put Sipowicz through all sorts of death and doom, to the point where it strained credulity. But the writers used the milieu and the events of the series to make Sipowicz change for the better.

  9. lyssabitson 27 Apr 2007 at 12:33 pm

    House is indeed awesome, but I think he excellently provides an example of one of the problems of continuing characters, the problem of being on “auto-pilot”. This is probably more of a problem on Television when (unless it’s an Aaron Sorkin show and you’re madman enough to write every episode yourself) you’re dealing with multiple writers who come in at different times and who didn’t originate the character.

    First season House I felt was a compelling, nuanced character. He was a jerk, but you could see the solid reasons behind why he was a jerk. Sometimes it was just because he liked to push people’s buttons, but mostly it was because that was his way of getting to the truth. Season Two and to a lesser extent, Season Three House is *sometimes* like that, but sometimes he’s needlessly cruel, even by House standards. 😉 Sometimes it seems like the writers are trying to fill an unspoken “mean House statements” quota, so they make him do things that aren’t designed to do anything other than make people feel bad. Sometimes that serves the story but sometimes it seems like it’s just a problem of a writer who has joined the team recently and is trying to write House based on a cursory study of some of the episodes. For instance, I’d argue there’s a big difference between how House reacted during Season One’s “Detox” episode, and the arc in Season Three when Cuddy and Wilson are refusing him free-reign with his narcotics. They are different situations, in “Detox” his withdrawal was voluntary and in Season Three it’s being foisted on him for what I’m sure House considers cowardly reasons, but nonetheless, I felt like the Season One situation was less superficial and more interesting than Season Three’s. (Although David Shore isn’t immune from shallow characterization, I mean, com’on, what was with the Vogler arc?!)

    You can see this on Gilmore Girls as well, as Amy and Dan Palladino started bringing in more writers and being less involved in the writing of each episode, the characters became caricatures of themselves, their most obvious traits blown up because the writers are trying to be true to what they’ve seen of the character, but without any nuance, because they probably don’t have as deep an understanding of the characters as the creators. I have to wonder what happens in the writer rooms, if new writers get enough information about the characters they’re being asked to write that they can understand the psyches and motivations of the characters well enough to write them without resorting to characterization cliche.

  10. Sherwood Smithon 27 Apr 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Here’s another who has never seen House (and it doesn’t sound like I want to so far.)

    I like Kevin’s definition, only I note that some great arc books required blur, just because of the lifetime it was taking to write them (Antonia Forest) or because the realities of travel time forced the blur (Patrick O’Brian’s superb roman fleuve that has to blur because of the necessary downtime a wooden ship would spend circumnavigating the world over and over again, so it’s 1812 for about nine or ten years before we finally reach 1814).

    Antonia Forest said in an essay that a number of people who had begun stories following families growing up and older found realtime and changes far outstripping their characters’ time, so they had to blur time into a kind of unfocused post-WW II sensibility. They didn’t want their teens to suddenly be in mini-skirts and beehive hairdoes, carrying transistor radios, when just a couple of years before they were enduring wartime rationing, etc.

  11. Laurieon 27 Apr 2007 at 7:23 pm

    I recently picked up and read the entire Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. It took me about a month to get through them. I was reading through the latest one, White Night, and Harry is being cautioned by another character that his plan is suicidal and will likely result in both their deaths. Harry smiles and says, “You should have seen the plans I came up with a couple of years before you showed up. Today’s plan is genius and poetry compared to those.” And it’s true. His schemes have gotten less desperate, more effective, and just plain better as he grows as a person and a wizard.

    I liked who the character was and I like who he is now. I’m interested in seeing who he’s going to be a few more books down the road.

  12. Jellynon 27 Apr 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Reading this post made me think of Harry in Order of the Phoenix. He was so Grr!Angry!Harry that it was nearly unreadable. Saying it’s hormones or Voldemort in his head might explain it, but it doesn’t make it any nicer to read a whole book from that angryHarry point of view.

  13. lyssabitson 27 Apr 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Awww, Sherwood, don’t be turned off of House, it may be one of the greatest shows on television. A description of House is purely inadequate, he comes off sounding distinctly unlikeable.. but some really solid writing and the incomparable Hugh Laurie make him one of those guys you love dearly even though you know you probably shouldn’t. 😉

  14. Madeleine Robinson 28 Apr 2007 at 12:28 am

    **veering off into a sidelight for a moment**

    Hey, do you suppose that Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote actually lived on a Hellmouth? That would explain the body count and her failure to have a nervous breakdown.

  15. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 28 Apr 2007 at 1:45 am

    Actually, with an old Champions game I played in, I came up with a premise that Jessica Fletcher was actually a supervillian with extremely subtle but powerful psi powers: Whenever she entered a new area, she broadcast a subtle mind control signal of “Would someone please commit a murder soon” and someone who was on the edge but would never have had the guts or bad sense to do it got pushed over into full-on psychosis. Of course, after the murder the guilt would eat at them as part of the other wrinkle of Jessica’s power, and if she hadn’t figured out who her victim was by the end of the episode, she’d make them have another snap and give a full confession, rather than do something sensible, like for example killing her.

  16. Joy Herseyon 28 Apr 2007 at 6:07 am

    I agree with Stephanie. A story with a beginning, a journey through time and space and life and an appropriate end just seems to be more appealing to me. That’s why I liked the Babylon 5 series. The characters developed according to the events occuring around them and you could see the motivations behind their actions. The series also came to an appropriate end and any attempt to continue in the universe fell flat. ( I think that was because JMS stopped writing) I find I don’t watch much TV just because it seems like a series will go on and on with no end to the journey. The same goes for a book series. If it goes on for too long I’ll stop reading it. The one exception thus far has been the Deverry novels by Katharine Kerr.

  17. kateelliotton 28 Apr 2007 at 1:00 pm


    although, oddly enough, those of us with teenagers at home found the “order of the phoenix” Harry completely believable. In some ways (although not others) that’s my favorite of the books because I enjoyed the way Harry was being portrayed. But this is a classic example of ymmv. I think it was only because I was dealing with grouchy teens on a daily basis that I found it more amusing than irritating.

  18. Sherwood Smithon 28 Apr 2007 at 7:16 pm

    I’m with Kate on the grouchy Harry! And for the same reason.

  19. Madeleine Robinson 29 Apr 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Me too. It was hard to read in the same way that living with a teenager is hard to do, but it read real to me.

    I have to say that I never meant to write a series. It just sort of happened. But now I’m embarked upon the project, I do want to treat both my readers and the characters fairly. Of course, what my readers may expect is reasonable for the characters and what I believe is reasonable will not, um, always mesh. I win in the short term because I’m the writer. The readers win in the long term if they decide I’ve rendered the characters too unlikeable, but cause they just won’t buy the books. What’s a mother to do?

  20. Brendan Podgeron 30 Apr 2007 at 4:33 am

    Arrgh! If I want “real” I will talk to workmates or watch news or current affairs shows. I want a story and things that get in the way of the story like pages and pages of pointless fighting between friends or over-description of events or shouting scenes written all in capitals(ouch my eyes hurt), in my view just get in the way.

    IMO a book shouldn’t be “hard to read”. Now I don’t mean it should be the sort of story that you can pick up, read, and put down without it impinging on your conscienceness, but it also shouldn’t be too hard work. If a book is trending towards the “hard to read” end of the scale what saves it is characters you connect with and care about. I have never had any time for teen angst(even my own) and I certainly don’t want to read it in my fantasy books.

  21. Walter Jon Williamson 30 Apr 2007 at 6:55 pm

    I was also annoyed by the Harry Potter of Order of the Phoenix, until I listened to the whole series on audio book, and then realized that Order of the Phoenix is actually Goblet of Fire, Book II.

    Order of the Phoenix starts just days after the previous book ends. Harry’s just seen his friend Cedric murdered in front of his eyes, he’s fought a duel with Voldemort and been tortured by him, and he’s found out that his mentor Moody was actually a bad guy luring him to his death. And now, in the new book, all his friends are lying to him.

    Of course he’s angry. He’s also depressed, anxious, and frantic. I would be, too, and so would you.

    As for ways of keeping continuing characters bright, shiny, and interesting, I’ve been working with the same set of problems. Here are some of my solutions, all of which can be found in my recent fiction, and all of which seem to be working (so far).

    Pile on the trauma. Find new, ingenious, relentless, arbitrary, and utterly cruel ways to torture your characters. (Note: this one works really well for Rowling.)

    When one goes up, another must go down. When Buffy’s love life goes to shit, Xander’s mysteriously brightens. In fiction, contrasts are good.

    Genius has no reward. Your character’s talent and success do not lead to acceptance, but only isolates her from her peers. See earlier remark about contrasts. (Rowling also does this very well.)

    Meet the Stupids. Your character has just been assigned to serve under Captain Stupid, who is doing his level best to get her killed. Most of her energy will be taken up battling oafish superiors rather than dealing with the opposition.

    Meet Machiavelli Your character has become a pawn in the awesomely complex schemes of another character, who is himself not necessarily a bad guy. Most of her energy will be taken up trying to figure out what’s going on rather than dealing with the opposition. (See: Order of the Phoenix)

    Give your character one problem that can never be solved, and which is making her crazy. Your character has a dark secret that can never be revealed. Or she’s in love with someone she can never have. Or there are social barriers that prevent her from ever, ever, ever being accepted. Or your character’s family situation is simply horrid, and there’s no fixing it. (I use all of these.)

    These are, on one level, all cheap tricks for generating audience sympathy and for preventing your character from turning into an eerie icon of Mary Sue-ish perfection. But they’re tricks that work, and they’ve worked for some very fine writers indeed.

  22. Marie Brennanon 01 May 2007 at 9:05 am

    Piling on the trauma and the unsolvable problem have to be used in moderation, though; I’ve seen authors ratchet the angst up again and again until it passes out of the territory where the reader can sympathize and into the territory where it starts seeming silly, and if the same problem continues for too long, readers stop having sympathy for it. (That latter one works better for me when it’s a background issue, rather than one up at the front, where the character angsts about it endlessly. After a while, you just want to yell at them to Get Over It.)

  23. Terrion 02 May 2007 at 3:39 am

    The other problem with piling on the trauma is if it gets too believable – I very nearly quit “A Man In Full” several times because Conrad’s travails were breaking my heart. Wolfe made me care about him, and then kept hurting him until I very nearly burned the book.

    Which the library would not have liked very much, I admit *grin*

  24. Walter Jon Williamson 03 May 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Obviously these things have to be done in moderation.

    The problem is to keep your continuing character human.

    If you’ve got a series character, that series will most likely consist of the character overcoming one obstacle after another. Winning, in other words. (A series about a character who continually loses does not seem to exist.)

    Winning winning winning, volume after volume. The character can become eerily perfect.

    The more skills I give a character— in other words, the more perfect the character becomes— the more free I feel to ladle out the trauma and neurosis.

    I remember when Harry Potter’s worst problems were the Dursleys. Being forced to sleep under the stair probably seems pretty good to him, now.

  25. Katharine Kerron 03 May 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Re: Delaware — I’ve known 3 social work professionals who worked with abused kids. They all burned out very fast and went to the edge of being bitter and cynical, so they quit, even though they hated to desert the children. The laws and the budgets they had simply didn’t allow them to really rescue the children; all they could do was remove them from their parents or parent and put them in foster homes, where they were safe from abuse but mostly ignored and miserable. So I suspect the author of that series is injecting some realism. Whether that’s a good idea or not is the subject to debate.

  26. Madeleine Robinson 03 May 2007 at 6:43 pm

    I have never doubted for a moment that burnout and bitterness are realistic given the horrendous things that social workers and child psychiatrists encounter–and this guy has repeatedly dealt with serial killers and deranged abusers and the what-have-you of the modern thriller. The problem is that we have very little to hold on to by way of Delaware himself. In the hands of a more thoughtful writer perhaps the realistic burnout could have been better balanced with some of the original compassion of the character.

  27. kateelliotton 03 May 2007 at 8:59 pm

    what do we do about realism? How much is too much? That is, to the point where the reader no longer can deal with the narrative? And in that case, are we then dumbing down in the sense of smoothing away the ugly truth?

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