The series game has one rule

series

Mea culpa – yes, I’m a day late again this week. Sorry to intrude on Paula’s Tuesday again, but the good news is that you may be getting two-posts-for-the-price-of-one today!

Silk’s Post #70 — Does anyone writing genre fiction even think about writing a stand-alone novel anymore?

Series. That’s the holy grail. The brass ring. The magic word that rolls off the tongue like the sexy serpent in the Garden of Eden. SSSS-e-r-i-e-s. Or, visualized another way:

$$$$-e-r-i-e-$

But listen up, fellow emerging writers (aka the great not-yet-published hoard): if writing one novel – and getting it published – is a mountain climb, then writing a commercially successful series is like climbing every mountain in the Hindu Kush.

So, if this is what you’re up to, sharpen your pitons, load up your backpack that weighs as much as a small horse, and prepare to experience some oxygen deprivation. Best I can advise you if you’re afraid of heights or doubt your fitness for this trip is: don’t look down, lean forward, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Truthfully, aren’t all genre writers — especially those of us who lust to see our names on the mystery-suspense-crime-thriller-legal shelves — really dreaming of series?

Who are our idols, if not James Patterson, Scott Turow, Sue Grafton, Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, John le Carré, James Lee Burke, Jeffery Deaver, Patricia Cornwell, Donna Leon, David Baldacci, Sara Paretsky, Jo Nesbo, Tom Clancy, Anne Perry, Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, P.D. James, Harlen Coben, Robert B. Parker, Peter Robinson, Elmore Leonard, Kathy Reichs, John Connolly and Michael Connelly?

And who were their idols but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardiner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald … even Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, who hooked them on mysteries at a tender age?

You can add your own favourite names to these lists, but it’s a good bet that most of them – like these – will have two things in common. First, they are authors of series. Second, they created famous protagonists – memorable characters who returned the favour and made their authors famous.

And that is the one inviolable rule in this business of series fiction. A great protagonist.

To climb the mountain, you need to invent an intriguing, enduring alter-ego to accompany you. Not just accompany you, but lead you through the snowdrifts of saggy middles, rescue you from the trackless wilderness of boredom and obscurity, and pull you up over the precipice when you’re dangling by a thread. A protagonist who is strong enough, smart enough, complex enough, resourceful enough, engaging enough, vulnerable enough, and likeable enough to climb to the heights, fall to the depths, recover and triumph. Again and again. Evolving somehow with each new story, but always solid at the core.

You can certainly have a memorable protagonist in a stand-alone book (for instance, it’s hard to believe that Dashiell Hammett’s larger-than-life Sam Spade appeared in only one full length novel, The Maltese Falcon). But it’s hard to pull off a series without a memorable “anchor” protagonist (it takes a talent like Scott Turow to establish a multi-protagonist series like his Kindle County stories, and even so he knits them together with recurring characters).

But remember: you will have to live with this protagonist for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health – possibly until death do you part. So you better love and cherish him or her if you want your readers to do the same.

Once you know that character to the bone, you can drop plot after plot on his or her head, and your protagonist will come alive and spring into action – and action is the lifeblood of story.

Okay, now to the fun part! Can you pair these famous protagonists with their authors? Answers are shown at the end for those who can’t guess whodunnit …

name-game

Answers:

1-p; 2-o; 3-q; 4-t; 5-w; 6-y; 7-d; 8-l; 9-c; 10-r; 11-v; 12-g; 13-u; 14-b; 15-j; 16-k; 17-i;
18-n; 19-x; 20-h; 21-f; 22-z; 23-e; 24-a; 25-m; 26-s.

Bonus:

the-lineupFor an extremely insightful and entertaining look into the hearts and souls of some of the most beloved detective protagonists and their creators, read The Lineup edited by the legendary Otto Penzler, in which “The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives”… in their own words and style. Published by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little Brown, this book is a gem that belongs on every crime writer’s shelf.

3 thoughts on “The series game has one rule

  1. Well done, Silk. Your post really brought home for me just how serious a decision it is to chose your protagonist. It sounds almost as important as chosing a spouse! Which in a way this is. Because this character will be part of your life from the moment on you put him or her in your first novel. Scary stuff, but exhilarating as well.

  2. Hmm, I think I envision my characters as anchoring only a few books, not a long-running series. But even that requires writing characters people want to stay with and keeping the story lines internally consistent in the book’s world. Definitely not an easy task!

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