Conflict and Series Characters

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was driving carpool from the middle school last week when a couple of radio hosts started talking about Facebook and vacation stories.

One of the hosts said he really hated Facebook because people always put up beautiful vacation pictures of their lovely families and everyone looked as if they were incredibly happy and having an amazing time.

The radio host went on to point out that no one wants to hear a happy vacation story—that these friends of his should just keep their experiences to themselves.  People only want to hear a story about a vacation that starts out great…and then something horrible happens.

This made me smile for a couple of reasons.  For one…I’m not wild about Facebook myself and everyone there does put their best face forward. (Who can blame them, though?)  I do have one friend from college who puts up absolutely hysterical snippets about her (rather stressful) life with her young children and I always love reading her updates.

This all sounds awful…but it’s how we’re entertained, right?  If everyone is blissfully happy then it’s not nearly as memorable or interesting.  Not that we wish bad things on our friends, but…

We need to wish them on our characters.  Our characters need to have a heap of issues to deal with, and issues that aren’t solely related to the main plot.

I’ve found that, as my series have grown longer, I have to force myself to throw some really nasty things at series characters.  It’s a lot harder than making trouble for the same characters at the beginning of the series.

I was wondering why this is and two reasons came to me.

  1. Space issues. Readers have asked me to make sure to include their favorite series characters.  And…as series continue, new characters tend to crop up and become recurring.  It’s much quicker and easier to pen a happy subplot with these secondary characters than to create an arc for each one with conflicts to resolve.
  2. I’ve spent too much time with these characters over a period of years and am too fond of them.


I was reading a very lengthy Elizabeth George novel recently and thought that she was trying to check in with a lot of regular characters in her Inspector Lynley mysteries. I know readers enjoy catching up, but it had the feel of a Facebook update…just a glimpse of the characters being happy with each other. But gosh, that book was so long that it sure didn’t need any other plot developments.

So here is what I’ve been doing:

  • Tie in these little catching-up subplots of these likeable supporting characters with the main plot. So maybe I’ve got some sort of happy subplot with some minor characters…they’ve got a new relationship maybe and are going on a delightful picnic (where they’ll likely take photos for Facebook).  But along the way, they’ll find a body.  Or they’ll become a witness and offer a clue/red herring.  Or they’ll lose their dog and the dog will end up finding a clue.  At any rate, they’re working harder for me and earning their keep.
  • Occasionally, I’ll make one of these secondary characters play a primary role in the action and will have an entire developed arc for them during the course of the mystery. But only for one or two characters—this gets sort of involved and too lengthy for a 75,000 word mystery (which is what mine are under contract as).

As a reader, do you look forward to catching up with minor characters in series?  How much catching-up do you require?  Do you like the characters to contribute to the overall plot and encounter conflict?

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23 thoughts on “Conflict and Series Characters

  1. I know books aren’t TV, but when a regular misses one episode of a show we’re watching, if it’s well written, I hardly notice.

    Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche ends with Andre-Louis and Aline gazing into each other’s eyes as if each saw heaven. If his fans had demanded updates, it would have turned one of the great romances in literary history into, well, another Facebook update.

    As a reader, I think I want to see more of that person, and hear what so-and-so is doing. But really, I want the writer to do right by all of us and tell the best tale they can. I’m in mind of Henry Ford who ostensibly said that if he’d asked his customers they would have asked for faster horses.

    Don’t give readers what they think they want. Give then what you know they want, and don’t realize it.

  2. Elizabeth – It’s so hard to balance those ‘visits’ with series characters with a focus on the main plot of a book. For better or worse, that’s usually my yardstick, actually. If a character or an event serves the plot (or narrative serves to better define a character) I include it. Otherwise I move on. It means perhaps fewer characters, but I think readers do want to get on with the story. And too many happy Facebook updates literal or figurative) are annoying.

    1. Margot–That’s what I think, too…keep it limited. Because I do try to write my series so that they can be read out of order…and what if it were a first-time reader encountering all the catching up?

  3. I love it when the dog finds a body on a picnic. Love it!

    Great lessons. I too find the secondary characters much as I regard relatives: I’m all interested to find out the details of how things have been going until I find out the details of how things have been going.

    I’m not sure of the cure but your solution of the “secondary character main feature” does seem a clever tribute.

    Detective’s Day Out and long suffering Mrs. Wilson who normally manages Friendlyville’s village office has to solve the case for long-suffering Detective Jones off at his sister’s wedding.

    I always love the surprisingly competent stand-in.

    1. Jack–Yes! Putting Mrs. Wilson’s skills to the test is exactly the sort of thing that seems to work with these stories. And it works well for secondary characters who long for the spotlight. I did this in the Memphis series once. Maybe you can even end up with a spin-off series… :)

  4. I definitely find myself wanting to see more of supporting characters as a series goes on, and becoming frustrated if they don’t appear for a while. This is particularly true if the last time the character featured, they finished the book in a bad mental place, or had bad things happen to them. I at least want that “Facebook update” from them.

    1. Paul–And with my genre, these characters all *did* go through a stressful time so you’re right…it’s sort of cheating the reader not to fill them in with an update. And if it’s a meaningful one in terms of plotting then I guess we get bonus points!

  5. I do look forward to catching up with minor characters, though I don’t feel the need for every one to appear in every book. (Unless the book has the feel of a TV show with a repertory cast.) I don’t like too much “drama” being foisted on fun characters, just for the sake of ramping up tension. (It’s why I stop watching CASTLE.)

    I do like the idea of minor characters taking turns having a major part. (I also kinda like the idea of spin-off series.) That’s actually something that long running TV shows do too: characters from the background who have an episode in the sun.

    Of course, all of that has to do with the nature of the series. Some series work from the start as soap opera, with heavy drama and teasing sub-mysteries in every turn from the start. Some work on a lighter pattern, with the series characters remaining steady and the guest characters providing the drama.

    Columbo would be an extreme version of the latter. Poirot would be a good example of something in the same lighter, less-personally-involved group that drew in higher drama now and then — in a natural way.

    1. Camille–Right…like “Murder, She Wrote,” as I remember. With cozies, you’re right, it’s tricky. The drama can’t be too heavy or else you’re really running some risks. I remember a few years ago when a really well-known cozy writer put a character through a very un-cozy experience and readers were incensed.

      Good point about the nature of the series. One of mine I can get away with more drama than the others. Each series has its own personality, I guess. Your examples were very good.

      1. You know, there’s a term in fencing called “The Relent.” That is, when you strike your opponent, and something has gone wrong (say, he unexpectedly steps closer) and you realize your stroke will be too hard. So as you make contact, you raise your hand to deflect the force of the hit.

        I really think that’s what cozies are about; they aren’t about a world without bad things in it (they’re about murder, for goodness sakes), but the author relents on the intensity of them. Often you draw the curtain, or you make sure the victim isn’t likeable, or is at least not close to the major characters.

        But sometimes it’s a matter of having characters who have the wherewithall to deal with difficulty. For instance: Miss Marple had seen it all, and she was of an age where she had already experienced loss. She was immune to drama.

        That’s something I try to balance, so I can let the story be deeper. Mick and Casey are used to death and violence, and so aren’t so emotionally vulnerable to cozy-style murders, but at the same time, they have a respect for death, and make a point of marking it, even when someone evil gets it. And they hold their innocence and use their toughness as the “relent” for others.

        And, say, in The Man Who Did Too Much, George falls under suspicion in a way that would cause great stress in an ordinary person, but with his spy background, he can shrug that off, and be more concerned about alleviating the stress of others — even though he’s totally neurotic in small things. And Karla has the personality of a draft horse or great dane, and really isn’t easily thrown for a loop.

        I think when you have characters who are strong enough to deal with the conflicts you throw at them — and you are judicious about drawing the curtain and not allowing the situation to be too intense otherwise — you can keep it cozy.

        1. Camille–I like that, ‘the relent.’ It’s not wrapping the characters in tissue paper so they don’t feel it…but letting them experience it without too much intensity.

          Very interesting point about tough characters who aren’t as horrified at the story’s darker elements. I think with one of my series, the sleuth takes an almost clinical interest in the murders (with an appropriately horrified sidekick who can maybe soften up her *lack* of concern). With another series, the sleuth is bored and the murders are almost fun (and yes, I have to make sure this is all humorously handled since that makes the sleuth sound awful).

          I think, in the case of the author I’m mentioning there were a few things going on. One, she delved into sex-crimes (which my editor would almost definitely put the kibosh on in most contexts…certainly as it relates to a main character), she picked on a particularly beloved character in a long-running series, and…it’s as you said, she didn’t soften the blow in any way. But the series was strong enough to survive the blow the book dealt and picked back up again.

  6. In “Writing the Breakout Novel”, Donald Maas said, “There must be tension on every page.” After I read that, I read a book that had a happy road scene. Meh, get on with the tension. No one wants to read about two people traveling to Toronto. Just have them get out of the car in Toronto laughing–then have one of them double over from cyanide poisoning.

    Peace, Seeley

  7. Elizabeth–
    Since I’m writing a series–the Brenda Contay suspense novels–the issues you raise today are of special interest to me. What they lead me to think is that writers will approach characters who carry over during a series in very different ways. I see you as especially capable of holding many continuing characters in mind as you move forward. This isn’t meant as a compliment so much as an observation based on what I know of your busy personal life, your life online, and your remarkable output as a novelist. In short, you can manage many balls in the air at once.
    I can’t do this. I can see successfully managing the ongoing lives of a few characters, but not more than a few. To my chagrin, I recently realized that the brother of my lead character, who is of some significance in the first book in the series (The Anything Goes Girl) , is never mentioned in the second. Book Two works well without the brother, but I can’t help thinking I’ve dropped the ball. I have to hope readers won’t conclude that Brenda Contay is a very shallow character. Or that I’m a dunce.

    1. Barry–No, you’re just being really focused on your current book’s plot and characters which is a smart move! Honestly, I didn’t start really worrying about this until I got dinged in a couple of reviews in about the 3rd or 4th book in the series for not mentioning a couple of apparently-much-loved characters.

      Now I’ve got a cheat-sheet of reader favorites that I check before I finish my second draft. It has recurring elements and themes from other books (like the yard gnomes in the Myrtle Clover series), favorite characters and when they were last mentioned, and running gags in the series. It definitely helps!

  8. I have to admit to a reluctance to wish bad things upon my characters, but I’m definitely determined to get over that. I guess it’s because there’s so close to my heart, it’s almost like wishing bad things to happen to your neighbor. It feels a little–horrible of me.

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