A few weeks ago my To Be Read pile had a Michael Connelly, a Jonathan Kellerman, and a Dick Francis (well, Felix Francis, at least) on the stack. As I looked at those spines I realized that despite breaking up with my fair share of authors, I seem to have more than a few that I have stuck with for decades. Have I really read over forty books about steeple chasing? And over fifty written by the same family? (I might enjoy the Kellerman’s son’s writing the best of all!) How have these, and others like Marcia Muller, Elizabeth Peters, Sue Grafton and Elizabeth George not jumped that damn shark? And why do I forgive them a bad book or two when I can so easily cast aside my affections for, say, Patricia Cornwell, and never go back? (Susan Amper wrote not long ago about the multitude of series she felt the need to drop.)
What makes for long term success? I feel that most important component is that the characters stay true to themselves. I don’t mean that they don’t grow and change—but that their behavior in thosecircumstances stays consistent (or at least explainable). Nothing can turn fans affections faster than when their character starts acting out of character. One of the biggest internet broohahas I have seen surrounded Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake. Most of you are rolling your eyes right now! For those who don’t know, Anita went from being a slightly prudish but tough necromancer to being all powerful and sleeping with well, everyone and everything. As the series progressed, fans vented more and more. Again, it wasn’t so much that her circumstances were changing, but that her values—her Anitaness—had become unrecognizable. When a beloved protagonist says and does things that “they would never do!” even the best plot can’t win over fans.
It’s great to pick up and move your character to a new setting. Let them forge new relationships. Create new families. Get new jobs. But their voice has to stay the same. Readers of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books have seen Kate through many tragedies and joys. But we know her. We know she’s not going to start wearing makeup and heels. If she did, I know I would toss the book across the room. The plots twist and turn, but Kate stays her same tough and loyal self. And the tone of the books stays the same. I don’t expect comedy or campiness in this series. I expect realism and believability. A werewolf isn’t going to show up in Stabenow’s Alaska.
Good series also need strong supporting characters. An ensemble cast, if you will. In fact, I read Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury books because of Jury’s friend Melrose Plant. And I love it when he gets to take the lead in stories of his own. trong secondary characters can keep the books fresh and interesting. They give the leads someone to bounce ideas off of. To crack jokes with. To be back up and to assist with things the leads don’t know how to do. Readers know that often times the leads’ romantic partners can come and go, but friends and co-workers stick around, and enjoying them as much as the leads enriches series in so many ways. I enjoy Jonathan Kellerman’s books and appreciate the author’s insight into crimes involving youth. But I adore his supporting characters. Milo Sturgis, big, homely, sloppy but whip smart cop is both delightful and irritating in equal measure. He’s the perfect foil to lead Alex Delaware and their dynamic is a huge part of these books.
Even if the plot and the main character are strong, flat or stereotypical supporting characters cause series to get stale before their time. As much as I still like Janet Evanovich’s humor and writing, her supporting characters often ruin the books. Seventeen titles, and there are characters that get tons of real estate in the books but are still not fleshed out. I’ve invested hours and hours in these people. I want to know them. I want them to be more than just stock characters.
Ultimately, I don’t know the exact recipe for keeping a series going. I don’t know why some get stale and samey while others remain surprising yet familiar. And, believe me, I realize that authors don’t owe us anything! They can and should try new things, write what and when they want to and end series even if they are still great or keep writing series that stink. All I do know is that these long-running series are precious to me and I’m so glad that I’ve spent decades in their company.
Amy Dalton is a buyer for a large, Midwestern library system. She has written news and reviews for several book and film sites over the years.