Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

First, a preface. Many years ago, while at Jim Huang's wonderful bookstore--The Mystery Company, in Carmel Indiana--I was asked a question that not only elicited a response from me, but one from Jim. He said that he felt that series mysteries tended to become darker as they went along. While that's not the case for all series mysteries, it is for many, and that includes mine. So here's the question:

As a reader, do you like it when the characters grow and change, or do you prefer them to remain the same? Put another way, do you want the series to always have the same tone, or do you mind a slide in a little darker direction? (As someone once said, some characters grow, and some characters grow orchids. Nero Wolfe never changed. The city changed around him, but he never grew older, never went on a diet, never met a woman and fell in love.)

Thoughts?

That's it.

Thanks so much!

~Ellen

31 comments:

Steve Liskow said...

I like characters to grow and change because I've outgrown the Peter Pan myth. I'm working on an unsold series myself, and the first book is sort of light noir, but the next four books--all in rough outlines--progressively turn much darker. The subject matter is more emotionally damaging to the characters, and there's more violence.

Maybe we want our characters to develop and "mature" the way we do ourselves, gradually becoming aware of the less pleasant aspects of life that our parents tried to shield us from.

I know that most of my favorite writers/series have become darker: Robert Crais, Linda Barnes, Laura Lippman...Dennis Lehane's series was ALWAYS dark. His standalones still are, and I still think he's one of the best.

Kate said...

This is an interesting question, especially as I've been involved with an internet chat lately that revolved around characters that didn't grow or change.

It seems I'm of two minds. When a character remains the same in a series then I can count on getting the same emotional response out of each book as I did out of the original. There are certain times in my life that the constancy is a comfort. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum doesn't change much, and I count on her to give me a good laugh in every book. However, I do think some of her books are darker than others, perhaps not sequentially, though.

I'm sitting here trying to remember a series I regularly read that stars a protagonist that grows and changes. Can you believe it? I can't think of one.

Apparently, I'm not of two minds after all. At least as far as my own escapist reading goes. In my own writing I strive for a protagonist who displays growth and change over time, regardless if it's one book or a series. If my own series will also become darker still remains to be seen.

Joyce said...

Great question!

In my opinion, the characters should definitely change. I don't think the series necessarily has to get darker, though.

In real life, people go through dark times and they go through happy times. Maybe books should reflect this ebb and flow, depending on what is going on in the character's life at that moment.

Troubadour said...

I agree with Steve. I like to think that my characters have grown and changed over the course of - OMG - eight books and roughly the same number of years, and in every book I saddle them with serious issues to deal with. Kinsey Milhone is stuck in the 80s, but even so, she evolves as a character and we learn more about her and her family as the series progresses, and Grafton experiments successfully IMHO with POV, too, to keep her series fresh. Perhaps we are drawn to Marple and Poirot and Wolfe and Koko and YumYum as familiar and reliable comfort reads, antidotes to all the darkness of both modern crime fiction and, indeed, the world.

SarahT said...

I lose interest when series characters don't grow and change. The series that I have abandoned reading are the ones in which I see no evidence of character development with the passage of time (Martha Grimes' Richard Jury comes to mind). Some characters are forced to do it with the times and manage it rather well (such as Ruth Rendell's aging Inspector Wexford). Others change in their relations to the others around them, like S. J. Rozan's Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Sometimes the change is pretty subtle: Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone has probably changed the least of any series character I continue to follow ... yet even stubborn Kinsey has had to adapt some of her views of the universe, in light of recent revelations about her long-lost family.

As far as getting darker, I have no problem with that at all. I like 'em pretty dark to begin with, anyway. Just as long as what looks like darkness does not turn out to be just a long, boring wallow in a moroseness that never changes (which is how Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta got for me, and why I dumped her).

Vicki Lane said...

I much prefer characters that grow -- and if that includes going a bit dark now and then, that's fine. Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, Kent Krueger, to name just a few, have done this beautifully.

Of course, if what you're looking for is a comfort read, you'll pick a series with static characters and no nasty surprises -- and there's a place for those too on my bookshelves. Depends on how vulnerable I'm feeling when I look for something to read.

Lisa Haselton said...

I like characters to grow and learn from their experiences, but I don't think that means they have to get darker in order to be interesting. I echo Joyce's comment about ebb and flow.

I enjoy the dark a lot of the time, but there's a limit to how dark a character can get before he runs into a wall, or actually crosses to the dark side.

nancy martin said...

Readers complain if a favorite author jumps the shark, though. I know I had some Amazon reviewers saying, "Stop reading the series now!" when I took my Blackbirds on a darker path.

I think most readers want the same visceral experience from each book in a series--whether it be laughs (Evanovich) or tough guy wisecracks (Parker's Spenser) or a tour through an interesting setting (Hillerman) or whatever drew the reader to the series in the first place. If the writer delivers that basic experience, readers are happy to see protagonists evolve--and face it, that evolution is often necessary to keep the *writer* engaged enough to keep going with the same characters!

Maybe one way for writers to look at the question is asking what we hope readers will be most attracted to in our books? What's the key emotional experience we want for our readers? As long as we deliver that on a silver platter, we can do anything we want to our protagonists.

Msmstry said...

As a reader who goes the gamut from dark to light and back again, I truly like to depend on a series to give me what I expect from it. (I always expect plot surprises!) Certainly I don't want the same book written over and over again, and I don't want the characters to become stagnant—growth is great, but bipolar is difficult.

If I choose a light (not insipid) cozy to read before bedtime, I don't want it to depress me. On the other hand, my thriller writer better keep my mind totally occupied during a flight.

Judy Schneider said...

I love when characters change naturally, as they encounter realistic events and occurrences. It seems some writers write dark for the sake of adding darkness (perhaps mistaking it for depth??), and that feels contrived. At that point,then, I usually drop the series. As long as the darkening is realistic (given the world), I enjoy it.

Thanks to all for an engaging exchange!

Judy Schneider

Amy Dawson Robertson said...

I definitely like a series where the character grows and changes over time. Otherwise, it can be a bit episodic. What about carrying villains from book to book?

Ellen Hart said...

Amy -- That's a great question about villains. I'll grab it and use it as a Burning Question for a future Wednesday. Thanks!

Michael Allan Mallory said...

I like characters that change and mature, but not to the point where they turn into completely different people. The core of the original character--what attracted me in the first place--should still be there.

Stories can get darker or lighter as needed. Life is like that. A fundamental permanent shift in tone might be too jarring. Shades of gray are OK.

Consistency helps make characters old friends you enjoy seeing again. Variety keeps them interesting.

Anonymous said...

The only constant is change -- so in my opinion characters must change just like we do. Sometimes it will be that they become more cynical because of life experience however some people develop wisdom. The character reflects somewhat the author -- if the series continues over 10 years won't the author have changed?

Peg Brantley said...

When I visit a friend, I expect the heart and soul of my friend to be the same—even if it's been a while.

We grow, mature, experience different things, get bruises where they can't be seen, but at our core, we're consistent.

Characters should change, but not to the point where the feelings they created in you when they first became your friend are forgotten.

Sandra Parshall said...

I always prefer the darker stories and characters, so I have no problem with that. I lose interest quickly in shallow characters who have no inner life and remain exactly the same book after book. However, I know that many readers want that sameness.

Rosemary Harris said...

Change frightens. Think of Bob Dylan going electric. When I told my editor that book three was a little darker than the others I thought she was going to pass out.
Still I think characters have to change at least a little over time.

Roberta Isleib said...

Absolutely, grow and change! With my background in psychotherapy (all about grow and change), I find series in which the character stays the same boring. Yes Kent Krueger's series is a good example of the character's essence staying constant while his inner life morphs as outer circumstances and family life change. Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon another excellent example.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I expect characters to grow and change--that's what brings me back to a favorite series, over and over. If the tone of the series changes too much, though--especially if it gets markedly darker--then I may not stick with it. A still miss a certain favorite series that I had to give up because it just got too grisly.

Judy said...

I like when the characters change and the series slides into the darker side. Same old same old just isn't as captivating.

Esri Rose said...

As someone who enjoys comedic mysteries, I'm fine with a series where the characters don't change much, as long as they keep me laughing. When a series changes tone, I often drop it. The most egregious example of this (non-mystery, sorry) is probably the Harry Potter series. The difference from first to last was profound. It morphed from a witty send up of English society and school experiences into yet another gloom-and-doom chase scene featuring reasonless evil (yawn).

I think as a writer get better in her craft, she learns to give her characters a harder time, and the tone often becomes darker. I've experienced this in my own writing. This is yet another reason I admire authors who can up the ante on conflict and still be funny.

Writing comedy is a hard row to hoe. Everyone can agree on what's dramatic. What's funny, not so much.

(My previous comment window disappeared and I had to rewrite this. If two similar comments appear from me, that's why.)

Norma said...

I seem to agree with many who like the characters to grow and change, but not so drastically that the tone of the story is completely different. That doesn't mean I read only cozy, or funny, or dark. I like a variety, and sometimes it isn't mystery.

Probably, that's what second, third, or more series, even genres are all about. I know Nancy is changing her tone with a new series (which I look forward to, by the way).

Librarian D.O.A. said...

I like characters to grow and change, but I don't think that having things get "darker" for them is necessary for growth or interest. I prefer my heros and heroines to get stronger, more confident over time. Leave the tragedy for the murder victim du jour.

Lev Raphael said...

Great question!


I'm a fan of all kinds of mysteries, but series offer something special: change and stability. We get the same characters (or some constellation of those) in one book after another, but we also get to see them change in response to the circumstances they're in. My Nick Hoffman series has a comic narrator but it has perforce become a bit darker over seven books because I didn't want Nick to be a cartoon: Wake up--find a corpse--go to Denny's. Given that he's an amateur sleuth, I wanted to make sure there is some impact on him (as well as show how the changes at his university affected him). Of course, there's also comic potential inherent in the situation of a bibliographer sleuth who grew up in New York and was never mugged or burglarized, who ends up in the bucolic Midwest confronted with murder(s). Over the course of seven books, Nick changes in some crucial ways, and stays the same in others--isn't that life? I like to see other people's characters grow in real ways, too. They don't have to go to night school and learn a new language, but something to show they're human helps make the book more meaningful. Ultimately, the writer's skill is what matters, and the change has to make sense and be organic to the book.

Daryl a.k.a. Avery said...

Great question. I think characters should grow over the series, but Agatha Christie's characters rarely did. Sue Grafton's character never ages and she has the same dress. I think it's all a matter of what the author wants and what the reader hopes for from the author. Perhaps they "never grow" so that a reader can pick up book 1 or book 26 and not feel like they missed a slew of info??

Joan Sween said...

For me, a book needs to have two things: a good story and a character who tackles the conflict in the story with intelligence. I don't care if a continuing character changes or not. I don't care if the character becomes "darker" or not. I care only that the plot problem stays the focus of the stories and the character remains sensible within the confines originally established by the author.

How a person defines "darker" probably affects responses. If a character becomes darker by turning into a vigilante who cleverly kills murderers who are beyond the reach of the law, that's fine by me. If a character becomes "darker" by becoming neurotic, addicted, or out of control, that's not for me.

Neil Plakcy said...

One of the best examples of a changing protagonist, IMHO, is Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder. I've loved all the books in the series, in part because I enjoy seeing how Scudder's life keeps evolving.

I have framed my own series around my gay homicide detective's coming out process-- so he's bound to change from book to book. It makes things more interesting for me, and I hope for the reader, too.

Beth Terrell said...

Interesting question. I prefer a character who grows and changes, but as several here have pointed out, a natural ebb and flow is important, as is keeping the core of the character the same.

One of the most hideous examples of character whose core is absolutely destroyed is Thomas Harris's Clarice Starling. I've never seen such an utter betrayal of a character by an author.

But as long as the character continues to show the core qualities I've come to love and admire, I like it when a character changes in a believable way in response to the events.

Amy Dawson Robertosn said...

Wow -- thanks, Ellen. I'll look forward to it!

Morgan St. James said...

As I work on the third Silver Sisters Mystery with my sister/co-author Phyllice Bradner, I find that our twins, Goldie and Godiva, are not necessarily growing but revealing more and more of their inherent personality traits. They have evolved into fully rounded characters. Their eighty year old mother and uncle [former vaudeville magicians] have grown in their involvement in the sleuthing and Flossie's personality and derring-do have emerged strongly, much to the delight of many of our readers...and me. I absolutely love writing Flossie and she will shine like a bright star in our latest caper, Vanishing Act in Vegas. We're about 2/3 done with the first draft, and I can't wait to see what this tarot card/astrology loving Jewish mother does next.

MORGAN ST. JAMES
VP Sisters in Crime/Southern Nevada
(pen name for two new novels: Arliss Adams)

Arliss Adams said...

As I am knee deep in writing Vanishing Act in Vegas, the third Silver Sisters mystery written as Morgan St. James (my real name), with my sister, co-author Phyllice Bradner, I realize that although the twins Goldie and Godiva haven't grown much in the popular perception of the word, their personality traits have become stronger and they are definitely three-dimensional characters.

Their eighty year old mother and uncle, their amateur sidekick eldersleuths who were vaudeville magicians, have definitely become more dominant in the series. Particularly Flossie who is anything but the typical Jewish mother except for her chicken soup and noodle kugel. With her life ruled by tarot cards and astrology, our fans have really grown to love her. Each book finds her taking more risks and being more vocal.

I personally like growth in a series, but I think the author has to be careful not to grow in the wrong direction, or have the series become so predictable that it also becomes boring. Even with growth, I like to feel an empathy for characters I've come to love (or hate.) I want them to continue to bring their particular panache to the series.

MORGAN ST. JAMES
VP Sisters in Crime/Southern Nevada

Writing as Arliss Adams for soon to be released DEVIL'S DANCE and THE DEVIL'S DUE.