I recently shared my upcoming manuscript—Third Degree—with a trusted friend who is also a book reviewer by trade. She pulls no punches. She always lets me know what she likes and what she thinks is not so great. (She still contends that Quick Study was her favorite, and to her mind, my best. I beg to differ. The best one is the one that just came out. Every single time.) I hold my breath until she finished whatever I have shared with her and this time, I was relieved that she really enjoyed the soon-to-be-published work. I also thought it curious her overall reaction: “I like that your characters live lives. They change. They make mistakes. They move on.”

I got to thinking about this because some of the mysteries I love best include characters for whom nothing ever changes. Nancy Drew never got any older (nor did she get to second base with Ned, a disappointing fact to the fifteen-year-old I once was). The Hardy Boys stayed just slightly post-pubescent (again, a major disappointment until I was able to visualize them as Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy). Miss Marple never married. Stephanie Plum remains in limbo, caught between two men, blowing up a new vehicle in each subsequent book in the series.

But in the Murder 101 series, mayhem ensues in terms of mystery and in terms of just living life because to me, Alison, Crawford, and the cast of characters are real and I can’t imagine them standing still. I recently mentioned to my editor—the fabulous Kelley—that I was thinking of taking Alison to Dublin to do some Joyce research in a novel down the road. I asked her if she thought that was a good idea. Her answer? “Only if everyone else goes with her.”

I see what she’s saying, but I wonder how realistic it is for Fr. Kevin, Max, Fred, and a host of other people in Alison’s “life” to hit the road with her and spend a summer in Dublin researching Alison’s dissertation subject, James Joyce? When it comes down to it, it really isn’t. So the challenge becomes how to keep Alison and her peeps interesting without taking them too far out of their milieu or just far enough.

It’s always been easy for me to write about Alison and the other characters because they live in a very distinct world that is not entirely unlike mine, except for the part where they occasionally trip over dead bodies or find heroin residing in their plumbing. My life is exceedingly routine: get the kids off to school, walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, do the laundry. Oh, and write. I’m supposed to write in there somewhere. I’m not complaining. It’s a great life. But there wouldn’t be a series if Alison’s life was just like mine. It also wouldn’t be a series if I didn’t create an alternate universe where my grown-up Nancy Drew finds the dead bodies or tries to flush a brick of heroin down the toilet. Nobody wants to read about my life, but some people want to read about Alison’s and the goal is to keep her life interesting.

I guess my question for you, Stiletto faithful, is do you like characters that live lives? Or are you more comfortable with characters who stay pretty much the same? How much do you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy your favorite amateur sleuth’s investigations?

Maggie Barbieri

9 replies
  1. Dru
    Dru says:

    I like characters that live lives especially when they experience what life has to offer and if that includes finding a body, then that's a good thing.

  2. Terry Odell
    Terry Odell says:

    I like progress and growth, but they can't become different people–not if who they were at the start is why I fell in love with them to begin with. I didn't mind when Harry Bosch quit the force, but I was glad when he went back.

  3. Zita
    Zita says:

    I do like characters who live lives and grow and change. Character development is a big draw for me when it comes to a series. If the character remains the same I soon become bored with them and usually end up dropping the series.

  4. Rachel Brady
    Rachel Brady says:

    Same problem here. I don't have a real place for two much-loved secondary characters in Book 3. The advice I've received is to keep them on the periphery, since readers have come to expect them, but not to leave them out entirely. As a writer, this feels contrived. I try to view it as another challenge that will make me better. Send Alison to Dublin to do what she has to do, but perhaps find a subdued role for the others…something that acknowledges that they are part of the reason why she is the woman she is.

    I'm with Dru and Zita, in that I appreciate change, but I think Terry represents the majority. Change is good, but not such a wild change that readers feel like they've lost touch with your characters. I really doubt you would let that happen, though. 🙂

    Interesting post, and timely.

  5. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    I love seeing character development in a series…so long as it's in character. I've been thrown off by protagonists that suddenly act in a shocking way. If it doesn't make sense or if the characters aren't who I thought they were when they originally charmed me, I move on. Hmm, Alison in Dublin sounds cool! Can there be a wedding or some other event that draws a bunch of the series' mainstays with her??? There must be a way!

  6. Mary@GigglesandGuns
    Mary@GigglesandGuns says:

    I don't think everyone has to go to make the story comfortable. Greeley's Fr. Ryan travels the world for whatever reason and one or two supporting characters may work their way in. In this day and age there are cell phones and internet so everyone stays connected.
    Growing doesn't necessarily mean aging.
    Giggles and Guns

  7. Dea, Kia, Jake
    Dea, Kia, Jake says:

    Thanks, everyone! Very helpful advice. I think I'll be able to straddle the line between growth and consistency. At least I hope so. 🙂 Maggie

  8. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    I like the characters to grow and learn from previous actions. Good post.


  9. Terri P
    Terri P says:

    Definitely prefer growth for a couple reasons. One, it makes the characters more real to me. Two, it keeps it from becoming too repetitive.


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