Evolving Characters in a Series

As I line up a cast of characters with whom I will live for years to come if this new series is a go, I am paying close attention to what seem to be my rules of thumb for a mystery series. I’ve also been slowly reading P D James on the detective novel (Talking About Detective Fiction)and articles/interviews with other crime authors. I’m curious whether we  agree on anything. So far it seems we don’t agree on much. I wrote in another post about PD James’s comment that few crime writers age their series characters.

Here’s a comment that surprised me, in an excerpt from a Publishers Weekly interview with Alexander Campion [no relation to my less-murderous alter-ego]: “There’s a trick to writing stock figure books. First off, nobody evolves.” Hang on, hang on, what?! Nobody evolves?!

Brother Michaelo is interesting to me because of the gradual changes in his character. Margaret Kerr matures over the course of her trilogy. Owen changes over time, as do Archbishop Thoresby, Alisoun Ffulford, Jasper de Melton…. I can’t imagine spending years with static characters. How tedious!

That’s not to say Alexander’s wrong. That’s his rule of thumb, and it works for him.

As for me, my characters evolve as I write them. Just this afternoon a character I had envisioned as blandly pleasant smirked on her first appearance. I don’t know how it happened. But when I reread what I’d written (or she’d written?), I realized it was better this way. Yes. She’s a bit irritating. She evolved right before my eyes, beneath my fingertips. I love unruly characters!

11 Comments on “Evolving Characters in a Series

  1. Interesting. I had not thought about the fact that some authors age their characters while others do not. Even when sequential novels involve subsequent events that would necessarily change the character, they don’t seem to evolve. I follow several authors who obviously evolve their characters like you do, but in slightly different ways. Louise Penny’s Gamache certainly has evolved over 10 years, but he doesn’t seem to have aged. Robert Parker’s Spencer got older over the years, but only about half as fast as the years went by. But as a person Spencer remained pretty much as he was at in the first book. [To my thinking, the last few “ghost” written novels were a mistake.] Parker’s Jesse Stone is more along the lines of Spencer than Gamache. [Same comment about the “ghost” written books.] One interesting thing Parker did was to allow the characters to cross into another book. Might that happen in your new series?


    • Interesting you should ask about characters crossing over from the Owen Archer books to the new series. I have considered it–I enjoy it when other authors do that. So far my decision is to give the new characters at least two books to establish themselves, and then I’ll bring in some of the aging cast if it suites the story. I am a wee bit hesitant because it gets tricky–the new series is in the future (the Owen Archer I’m working on is set in 1375, and the new series begins in 1399), so I need to be absolutely sure where the Owen Archers are heading…. I don’t want to lock myself into a future I’ll regret! Or one which the characters will reject. They have the power to do that.


      • “Wee bit hesitant” has the sound of the Highlands… I am very glad to hear that an Owen/Lucy is in the works; I would be disappointed to not see them again. That you are thinking at least 3 books in advance is quite encouraging.


      • I love that phrase, “wee bit.” Can’t help meself. Yes, I am bursting with ideas for both series. Just can’t get enough of York.


  2. It occurred to me later that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin neither age nor evolve over approximately 30 years. But I truly like those characters as they are. Of course the TV series covers a much narrower range of years, and Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin, along with the rest of the regulars are what I think they always were for all those 30 years.


  3. For the most part, Agatha Christie’s characters, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, didn’t evolve, but she did age Poirot to the point he died in her final novel. Our characters have to evolve, even if we don’t age them much. The cases they solve and the situations they face have to affect them in some way that can’t be ignored in subsequent novels. Owen Archer doesn’t seem to age but it’s been great to watch him evolve after years of married bliss and then a trip back to Wales.


    • Interesting that Owen doesn’t seem to age–I’m keenly aware of all his aches and pains. Lucie’s, too.

      I agree. Every investigation has the potential to scar the psyches of the recurring characters.

      It’s been years since I read an Agatha Christie, so I can’t recall whether or not Hercule and Jane ever refer to previous cases. Do they?


      • I, too, have been away from Agathie Christie for a time, but I do recall Jane referring back to a case where she was called “Nemesis”, and I believe that Poirot refers back to the “Yellow Iris” case.
        Bob Newman


      • Bob Newman mentioned a couple of references where Poirot and Jane referred to previous cases, but I don’t remember them. I suppose I’ll have to read them again! Considering the volume of work Dame Agatha (Agathie?) produced, it wasn’t typical for any of her sleuths to recall previous cases.


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