If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you know that I’ve mentioned the importance of characters more than once. Without interesting and authentic characters who evolve over time, a series gets stale anyway. With those characters, readers come back time and again, even after a not-so-good experience.
For example, Jo Nesbø ‘s Harry Hole is a compelling character. He’s far from perfect (and for many people, that’s part of his appeal), and sometimes he’s his own worst enemy. But he is smart, complex enough to be interesting, and dedicated. He’s determined to do the right thing, even when it’s not clear what that right thing is. Because of Harry Hole’s fascinating and likeable character, readers queue up, even though some of the Harry Hole novels are quite violent, and some of them are longer than readers typically would choose. It doesn’t matter; we love Harry.
Another very popular set of characters appear in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Guido Brunetti and his family are real, likeable people. Their fans love the “window” into the Brunetti family that they get in Leon’s novels, and they admire Brunetti’s dedication, his devotion to his family, and determination to do his job as well as he can. The other “regular” characters are also appealing, and fans love “visiting” them, too. Signorina Elettra Zorzi, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello, and even the man we love to hate, Vice-Questore Patta, are all quite real to their fans. So devoted readers forgive the occasional Brunetti mystery that doesn’t live up to their expectations; they sill love “visiting” with their favourite characters.
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has also won worldwide fans of his characters. Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a wise, interesting, smart and sometimes humourous sleuth. Her associate, Mma. Grace Makutsi, is equally interesting and so is Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s got his own quiet wisdom and his own appeal. Devotees of this series are always eager to catch up with their favourite “regulars,” and they are willing to forgive the occasional story that’s a bit disjointed or in some other way falls short of expectations. Why? They can’t wait to catch up with their “friends” in the next instalment.
I’ve mentioned this quality before, too, and it’s really important. Michael Connelly, for instance, has of course created memorable characters in his Harry Bosch and now his Mickey Haller. But even more, he’s not afraid to innovate, to try something different and to see where it takes him. Fans of his series know that even if they are a little disappointed in one or another of his titles, that he’ll come back with something new and fresh the next time round. That plus his terrific characters makes a new Connelly title irresistible to those who’ve come to love his writing.
Agatha Christie also wasn’t afraid to try new kinds of plots and to experiment. Her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, and Christie’s plot twists, new ideas and innovations are legendary. Even Christie’s most ardent fans wouldn’t say that everything she wrote was of the same quality. But even her weaker work shows her willingness not to be bound by whatever story had come before.
Focus on the Story
Perhaps it seems blatantly obvious to say that a good series has well-told stories. But I think the point bears a few comments here. Crime fiction fans want a taut, interesting story that keeps them wondering what’ll happen next. The answer to that question has to be believable, too. That’s part of what’s won so many fans to Philip Margolin’s legal thrillers, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone stories and Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren stories, among many others. These authors write novels that are focused around the main plot. Yes, of course we get to know the characters and they evolve over time. So these plots aren’t what you would call too linear. But the novels are focused more than anything else on the story.
Authors who craft their plots carefully and well don’t have to rely on too many co-incidences, “recycled” plots or too much blood and graphic violence. The plot carries the story and readers follow along eagerly. And readers are willing to forgive the occasional less-than-deep character or less-than-evocative setting if they know that in general, the author works hard to plot well.
I haven’t seen the research on this, so I can’t say with absolute certainty, but my guess is that readers are quicker to forgive a weak effort from an author whose work is usually strong than they are the same weakness in an author whose work is more uneven. I’m sure that all of you can think of at least as many crime fiction authors as I can whose work is consistently strong and has stayed that way. When those authors write a less-then-fine book, it’s easy to think, “Well, anyone can have an off-time. I’ll bet the next one will be much better.”
No author can be at his or her best all of the time. All authors stumble at least a little. Trust me. But what is your view on all of this? How easily do you forgive a beloved author for the occasional stumble? How many stumbles before you give up on that author? What pushes you in one direction or the other?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song from Philadelphia’s own Todd Rundgren.