Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sim Book

Somebody once told me--apologies for forgetting who--that the longest-running series are the ones with the least character development. I thought about this recently, as I had a meeting with my publisher to discuss plans for THE GUILTY, which comes out in less than six months, as well as long-term plans for future books. One of the things we discussed was "World Building." Specifically the importance of creating a universe that is constantly evolving, while staying true to the rules the authors has established. While world building is most commonly associated with fantasy and science fiction, it's an incredibly important aspect for any series, especially a budding one, where the hope is to both entice new readers while sating fans who've been there from the beginning. As an author, it goes against creative impulse to begin every book with a "previously on..." in order to let new readers (or forgetful old ones) catch up, yet you have to approach almost every book with the hopes of drawing from both wells.

My second novel, THE GUILTY, is complete. Galleys should be arriving within the next few weeks. In this book I continued the stories of several main and supporting characters from THE MARK, while adding a few new characters and subplots into the fray. I'm currently working on THE STOLEN, the third in the series, and am trying to accomplish the same thing. Only now I have two books worth of characters and stories to draw from. It opens up my characters' worlds to more possibilities, but also narrows what I can do with them. I've set certain rules, established behavioral patterns, and these must be adhered to.

At the Romantic Times convention, Jim Butcher stated that when sitting down to write STORM FRONT, he had the Harry Dresden series plotted out through twenty books. Right now I have my series plotted through three, with ideas for four and five percolating. I don't know, at this point, how many books the series will encompass. Part of it depends on readers. I have seven under contract, and if readers are still hungry for more beyond that and my sales figures support it, chances are there will be more. Certainly at some point I'd like to write something non-series, but as long as there are stories to tell with these characters I'm all for keeping them going. But for how long?

Many authors have written crime series that have gone on for well over ten years, sometimes more and, if anything, are more popular than ever (Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum come to mind). These authors still receive strong reviews for their work, regularly top the bestseller lists, and the books stay fresh. But with so many books in a series, how much character development can there be?

The characters in THE GUILTY have their scars, both mental and physical, from THE MARK. Yet at some point, in a crime series, if the characters wear their scars on their sleeves to a completely realistic degree they'd either be dead or going insane. Jack Reacher can get away with this, partly because he's a badass mofo, but he's a badass to such a degree that scars (physical, at least, are expected). For characters who are cops, reporters, bounty hunters, or hold any one of numerous other dangerous professions, at some point the odds would catch up. If the author establishes that a forensic anthropologist or sports agent can be in fatal danger in every book, the reader accepts that as part of the universe. But that means they accept there is something slightly implausible about that universe as a whole, since I doubt many FAs get their degrees with the expectations of being menaced by murderous psychopaths. For the most part readers are willing to accept these credulity strains, provided the author is conistent within the universe they've created.

So as an author, how much development do you need to stay true to the character? And how much can you ignore certain implausibilities to create a consistent universe?


Blogger Karen Olson said...

As a reporter, I certainly never got shot at, but my reporter protag has and while I know it's a stretch, we have to deliver some sort of danger in each book. But I take great pains to keep the newsroom credibility in check, and with that in mind, Annie may never get to write an actual news story because of her constant conflict of interest :) I make sure I'm not writing the same book over and over, and I do develop her character further in each book.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Dana King said...

Great question. I think it depends, like you said, on the kind of rules the author has set up, and on the caliber of the writing. Every book in a series has built in backstory: the previous installments. Some writers make better use of this than others. James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, and John Connolly consistently build on their last novel. Ed McBain’s characters grew slowly, but they grew. Spenser and Hawk have remained pretty much stationary for years, as did Philip Marlowe. The trick, I think, is to give the reader enough of what he expects to make him comfortable, while delivering enough that is new to keep from boring him. Not as easy as it might sound.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Jim Winter said...

My original series had a 12-book story arc mapped out. My goal was, from book 2, to send him spiralling into hell for the first half of the series, have a middle book where he's rescued from virtual oblivion, then spend the rest of the series redeeming him.

And just because I'm a cruel, cruel person, I was going to have something from his very first short story come back to haunt him in the last book, and in the final scene, he is likely dying.

But I don't tell you if he does or not.

Unfortunately, since that publisher went belly-up, I'm now at the beginning of a series with no home, I have no clue where the protags are going, and don't know how long the series can be sustained.

It's good to be prepared.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Dave White said...

Assuming I get to write on, I have ideas for my series, and where it's going.

At the same time, I love how the threads seem to have grown organically out of short stories I wrote ages ago. It seems I was subconsciously laying the seeds, I just didn't know it.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think successful stories can go either way -- look at Lawrence Block and his two main series. Matt Scudder has changed an enormous amount, and aged significantly through the books, while Bernie Rhodenbarr is basically static through time. I don't know if the more comic tone of the Burglar books has anything to do with that, but I think it's interesting.

2:34 PM  
Blogger LindaBudz said...

Great post! This is also an issue with relationship development.

I am struggling with this myself, halfway through book two of my kids' mystery series. Some significant stuff happened between my MC and her best friend in book one, and so now their relationship has changed for book two. Which is making it really hard. Having the BF serve as a sort of foil through most of book one was so easy and effective, and I'm floundering now to figure out how to make this work. It helps to know others wrestle with these issues as well!

10:09 AM  

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