After I finished Rose’s Hostage, the novel I’m querying now, I realized a couple of things.
First, that the story wasn’t done, at least not in terms of the couple, Joshua and Libby. Where are they going from here? I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s more to come.
Second, that my detective has more potential than I thought. Pierce and his partner Rossberger can have more adventures. They live and work in a great big city, and everyone knows great big cities are full of crime. I could have a series on my hands.
Creating a series character is a daunting task. You have to give a character room to grow over the course of the series. In addition, each situation must give your character fresh challenges. And he should have the skills, the talents and the knowledge to overcome them. A few endearing or astonishing quirks don’t hurt.
I’ve been reading thrillers because it’s the genre I want to work in, and I enjoy them. Writing them is more fun than I ever imagined. I’ve noticed that no matter how over the top you get, you can’t possibly go too far. Ever. Look at Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series. In Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon has to jump out of a helicopter and float down to earth using a makeshift parachute. In The Lost Symbol, he gets kidnapped, buried alive, and appears to die.
Michael Palmer’s medical thrillers get equally crazy. I can’t remember which one it was, but the villain trapped the protagonists in a cave filling with water and in a desperate attempt to save themselves and others trapped with them, they had to swim out through a tiny hole.
My poor detectives might have to stretch themselves. I strove for realism in the book, which, after re-reading some of this other stuff, makes me wonder if it’s too sedate. In real life, cop stuff usually isn’t that exciting.
My absolute favorite, by the authors other than Stephen King who would inspire a Wayne’s World-type salaam from me, is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child‘s Aloysius Pendergast series. These two write terrific thrillers independently, but their collaboration boasts the best character I’ve come across in years. Pendergast is an FBI special agent unlike any you’ve ever seen before.
The man is filthy rich, impeccably dressed, cultured but not snobbish (although he has moments of condescension that somehow manage not to sully him), pale, cadaverous and spooky. He is the kind of person to whom weird things gravitate. An unexpected ward born in the nineteenth century, an evil brother (not a twin, thank God), various monstrous cases. With real monsters.
Pendergast can have a quiet cup of imported tea with you and in the next two seconds disarm a crazed assassin. He picks locks, is a master of disguise, and frequently operates outside the bounds of the law, all while maintaining a unique propriety.
I LOVE this guy.
He started in Relic as a peripheral character; the real protagonist in that one is NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta. Vinnie ends up as Pendergast’s sidekick in the series, heavily involved in his many outrageous adventures, to the disgust of his captain and new lover, Laura Hayward. I always feel when reading that first book that the authors liked the character so much that they ran with him. And the results are not disappointing.
In their latest, Fever Dream, Pendergast, along with Vinnie, must solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. You don’t see Helen in the series until now; she’s already dead. Most thrillers rely on suspense to move the story forward. You might already know who the antagonist is, and the momentum lies in the hero’s attempts to thwart him/her, or resolve a situation that seems insurmountable. For example, will Cowboy Sam be able to free Pearlie Sue, tied to the railroad tracks by Mad Marvin, before the 5:15 arrives? Fever Dream contains a genuine mystery, and the stakes are tremendously high.
Worse, it leaves bits hanging at the end. Boo! Now I have to wait until the next one. It’s torture, I tell you! Sheer torture!
I also liked this book because Pendergast comes unglued. Every one of us has a breaking point. For him, it’s the discovery that the one person he allowed into his cloistered emotional world was actually murdered. Pendergast’s early life was not exactly a stereotype of comfortable wealthy leisure. (Evil brother, remember?) Usually, this character is an ice cube. Here, you get to see another side of him. And it ain’t pretty.
A strong character needs to have facets. He’s not believable unless he does. No one acts/feels/thinks one way all the time, and neither should a book character. In a series, these facets are great ways to advance not only the character development, but the story arc. Do you have something in mind for your hero? Does he strive for a goal like Harry Potter’s revenge against Voldemort for killing his parents, or Roland Deschain’s quest for the Dark Tower? Reaching that goal will likely end your series. Yet the journey can wring your character out like a rag. No fun if it doesn’t, for reader or writer.
Or you can leave it open-ended, but explore different aspects of the character. Preston and Child let us into Pendergast’s traumatic past in the Diogenes trilogy, in which Pendergast must confront his brother. Theoretically, they could milk his complex psyche until they die. In the back of Fever Dream, the authors announced the coming debut of a new character, but that they would not abandon Pendergast. That’s great, because we Pendergast fans can’t get enough. Unless he started doing ridiculously out-of-character things, I’d certainly keep buying the books, and I don’t even wait for paperback anymore.
The key to keeping a series character alive is love, I think. You have to love putting this person through his paces. You must love spending time in his world. I love Detective Pierce. He’s a bit prickly, not exaggeratedly so, but a good man overall, trying to do the right thing. I can’t wait to see what tips the scales for him, or how he deals with the myriad nightmares I can throw at him.
I’ll give it a shot. Or maybe the bad guys will.