Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Series Charaters . . . Static or Evolving?

by Sean Chercover

I just got back from Thrillerfest, where Marcus and I were on panel (with great fellow panelists Jack DuBrul, Christine Goff and super moderator Jon Land) about the pros and cons of writing a series. One of the subjects we batted around was whether a series protagonist should grow and evolve over time, or remain basically unchanged.

When I sat down to write the second Ray Dudgeon novel, I found that Ray had to have been changed by his experiences in Big City, Bad Blood. Had to. You just can’t go through the kind of hell Ray went through in that book and come out of it unchanged. It was the only way for me to continue believing in him.

But that’s Ray. There are some excellent series characters that don’t fundamentally change, no matter what happens to them over the course of a series.

Two of my favorites: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. These guys are larger-than-life archetypes, both relatively unchanging over time. Yet I have no trouble believing in them.

I’m generally more interested in character than plot, so in most cases a static protagonist will only hold my interest for a few books, and then I'll move on to a different series. I usually prefer evolving series protagonists. But Child is such a damn good writer and storyteller (and Reacher is such a damn good character) that I’m always eager for the next book. The same can be said (in the past tense) for MacDonald and McGee.

(Sure, McGee was a product of his time and his attitude toward women is at times cringe inducing. But he did reflect many men of his era, so it doesn’t diminish his believability. The same criticism cannot be made of Reacher. Reacher respects women as his equals, and the Reacher books are well populated by strong and intelligent women.) But I digress . . .

Another thing that keeps the Reacher series fresh is that some books are written in the third person, others in the first. So even if the character is not changing much, the shift of perspective gives us different views of him.

My favorite evolving series characters? Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder leap to mind. And, as our panel moderator pointed out, James Bond changed a great deal over the course of the original Ian Fleming series.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you prefer to pick up the next book in a series knowing that you will find a reliable archetype, or are you looking for a character that has been changed by his/her previous experiences? Who are your favorite archetypal or evolving characters? And why?


Maryann Mercer said...

In most cases, I need change and growth, no matter how subtle, for a character to keep my attention through a series of books. Reacher does change, although so slightly it doesn't scream out at the reader. His life experiences dictate change, but nothing alters his basic standards or code. Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor is one of my favorite characters in the mystery genre, as is Charlie Moon. Life hands them crises and they adapt in order to handle them. Even when they get back to normal living, that knowledge stays with them and can affect later actions.
Of course, I also like the predictability of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. She never changes, even though life in St. Mary Mead does. However, if a character never changes and never learns, three books (sometimes less)is more than enough. Just my reader's opinion :o)

JD Rhoades said...

I pretty much sum up my philosophy about changing characters in this passage from GOOD DAY IN HELL:

“When I was growing up,” she said, “my Dad loved detective novels. He really liked this series about a guy named Travis McGee. You ever read those?”

“A couple,” Keller said. “There was this thing where they all had colors in the title, I remember that.”

“Right,” Marie said. “That’s the one. Dad loved those. So I loved them too, because I wanted to be like him. I read all of them.” Keller was silent. “Anyway, remember how McGee lived on this houseboat? Had all sorts of adventures. He got knocked around, shot at, stabbed, blown up…and in the end, he usually managed to kill the bad guy. And then…he’d go back to his boat, pour himself a drink, and next book he’d be the same guy. Same philosophical attitude,” she chuckled, “same kind of screwed up attitude towards women, although I didn’t notice that ‘til later.” The smile left her face. “But he was the same guy, even after he’d killed someone. Even after…even after he’d nearly been killed himself.”

“Yeah,” Keller said. “That’s how it works in stories. If someone really went through what those guys go through that many times, they’d be totally batshit crazy.”

Marie fell silent. After a few moments, she said softly, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?”

And yet, I still love me some McGee. Nero Wolfe, too.

The Home Office said...

I like to see some evolution. The character needs to retain the core features that made him/her attractive in the first place, but making the hero will eventually make him out of synch with his time, thus undoing what might otherwise have been a successful series.

Even though Ed McBain 87th Precinct cops never really aged, they grew. Carella's kids got (a little) older; Kling's relationships moved on; even Fat Ollie lost a little of his racism when he met the Hispanic female cop. They were still all we expected them to be, and filled their roles in McBain's ensemble, but they lived and grew like real people.

I agree with Maryann's comments about Reacher's growth. My favorite contemporary, evolving hero is John Connolly's Charlie Parker, though Declan Hughes' Ed Loy shows promise after just two books.

Sean Chercover said...

Nicely said, Dusty. And such an observation doesn't have to diminish our love for McGee.

I don't actually think that it is a criticism, to say he doesn't change. It's just a different choice by the writer, and offers a different experience to readers.

MacDonald didn't forget to have McGee change - it wasn't an oversight. He consciously chose to make Travis McGee a relatively unchanging, reliable hero.

Which, if you read interviews with Lee Child, was a conscious choice for Reacher, as well. Yes, Reacher changes (slightly), as does McGee. They grow older (and react to that), they gain knowledge from their experiences, and so on. But they don't fundamentally change. They don't question or modify their basic worldview or moral compass.

And they are two of my favorite characters in crime fiction.

Matt said...

Does character change, or is the true character simply revealed? I suppose it's pretty much the same in the end.

Block's Scudder is interesting because the character shifted by degrees and the novels in which the change occurred were often years apart. We never actually see him go through those post-8 Million Ways to Die days where he clings to his sobriety with Jim Faber as his sponsor. Yet, when he reappears to help Elaine deal with James Leo Motley, we can see he's done it. We can feel what he's gone through.
When Elaine offers him a drink and he politely declines, we can feel the weight of his refusal.

My favourite character in crime fiction, of late, is Adrian McKinty's Michael Forsythe. By the third (and unfortunately, final) novel in his saga, The Bloomsday Dead he has more or less come to terms with the fact that he is very bad news. He is a screw-up, and he is a survivor. "They say that when he was born vultures perched themselves on the houses of his enemies."

Anonymous said...

Sean,you found two of my favorites,especially Travis McGee.As I remember there was always a subject chosen that Macdonald researched during his plot and I loved that because it was well done.I've only lately discovered Lee Child and Reacher but I hope to read a lot of them. Thanks for reinforcing my choices.Incidentally I enjoyed your last as well. Carol

Sean Chercover said...

Matt - There are two Scudder books between EMWTD and A Ticket To The Boneyard. When The Sacred Ginmill Closes (which is awesome) and Out On The Cutting Edge. Ginmill is a flashback book, but I do remember seeing Scudder struggle with his sobriety in Out On The Cutting Edge. I think. Of course I could be wrong - I drink and my memory is not perfect. Thanks for the recommendation - I'll check out McKinty.

Carol - Thanks very much, I'm glad you enjoyed BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. And I think you'll find the Reacher books are consistently excellent.

Come to think of it, doesn't Lee Child look a bit like your image of Travis McGee? Does to me. Wrong accent, but the look is right.

Matt said...

I stand corrected, we do see him in Out on the Cutting edge - what a terrific book, and a long wait between 8 Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and Out on the Cutting Edge. But by the time we see him in Out on the Cutting Edge, he's a long way from the Scudder in tears at the end of 8 Million Ways to Die.

On a side note, I lucked out and picked up an autographed copy of Big City, Bad Blood at Indigo here in Toronto. Excellent, excellent read.