Monday, August 27, 2018


Let’s talk character evolution.

Part of the fun of a series is how events change a character. As a reader, I want to settle in with my favorite fictionals, find out what life flings at them, and learn how they handle it all. I care—passionately. That is one reason I love long series, each book being just a chapter in a very big novel. Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks is a good example. Each book is a small step in Banks’ evolution. We see the break-up of his marriage, the growing up of his kids, the various love affairs and how he handles the relationships afterward. There are lots of secondary characters we care about. How will they change and will he ever get back together with… Well, that’s a spoiler. And we care about the small stuff. I got upset when Banks gave up (with good reason!) his favored whiskey, and, from the way Robinson has handled that detail, I wasn’t the only one.

Sometimes a writer makes a mistake with a character, giving them some quirk or past that doesn’t really work long-term. Even the best do this. When I suspect this has happened, I want to see how the author gets around it and applaud clever handling. Ian Rankin first drew Rebus as a detective with a Bible always close to hand. For some reason this very Scottish Protestant detail never rang true to me with the rest of Rebus. I don’t know if Rankin began to think the same, but the book disappeared early on. This was linked to Rebus’ growing disillusionment with the world, and that worked for me.

Minor characters are very important in this process as well, not only in their relationship to the main guys but just for themselves. When I started my own series, I peopled it with ongoing fictionals and some that show up occasionally. As a reader, I often wonder whatever happened to “X”. Sometimes it is good to let the reader fill in the blanks. Sometimes it is fun to bring the character back. I have an anchoress who was introduced in the second book, shows up again in the fifth, and may well drift through again.

Secondary characters take the heat off the main ones, and good writers know how to do this. Other than Sherlock Holmes, most primary characters welcome it when the spotlight shifts a bit to another intriguing storyline. Pointing to Rebus again, he has no problem with his former sergeant, now outranking him as an inspector, Siobhan Clarke taking front stage from time to time.

I’m always disappointed when the author rushes character development. Maybe that is why writers should plan a series arc. Even though I love long ones, I am satisfied with a three or six book series if the character has evolved fully. Sadly, series are so often dropped after just a few books that authors are almost driven to trying too much in too short a time.

Finally, there is an equal problem when character evolution stalls but the series goes on. That is a subject I want to tackle but will put off to another blog.

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