I am an expert binge story consumer. I love series in any form—books, TV shows, movies. I’m an equal opportunity binger. There’s nothing better than sinking into a great story with a cast of characters that feels like old friends. At the beginning of the pandemic, I sought out many of my old favorites and found new ones, too. (You can read all about that in a different blog post describing how I numbed my pandemic pain with TV.)
As a reader, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the subtleties of creating interesting and enduring characters in mystery series. I just know I like them. The author has made me care about them. I want them to succeed – survive – solve the mystery – and (depending on the series) have some semblance of a love life.
For the writer, crafting these characters is complex. It requires a unique skillset that includes mapping out character arcs that work, not just for a single book but multiple books, spanning years of real time and often years in the character’s life as well. While the core mystery is revealed and solved within a single book, characters will have ongoing storylines that move through each story to the next. That storyline can make or break the success of a series.
A writer must create the characters’ backstories, which often are a major influencer for their motivations, habits, quirky things they say or do, and their opinions about the world. Main characters cannot be too perfect. We want our heroes to have flaws—that’s what makes them relatable and loveable. (For more tips on series writing, check out Marilyn Levinson’s list of 12 Things to Keep in Mind When Writing a Mystery Series.)
So now it’s time to fess up about the 52-book series I just reread!
Here’s how this went down: I was reading the latest book in J.D. Robb’s In Death series and I realized that I could barely remember how the main character, NYC homicide detective Eve Dallas, met her husband Roarke. And then I thought, I should go back and re-read the first book or two to remind myself . . . well, a funny thing happened. I couldn’t stop reading. Before long, I was well past book #20 and unwilling to stop. (FYI: For those of you who don’t know, J.D. Robb is the pen name of Nora Roberts.)
With this series set in future NYC, there are a ton of intriguing futuristic (but not too far out there) technological advances. Each book is a contained murder mystery/detective procedural—some more gruesome than others, but all well-solved through multiple twists and turns by the end of the book. But what makes this series work so well is the depth of the main and secondary characters. Their continuing storyline and backstories are compelling and dynamic. You await the next book not only because you want to see how Eve Dallas solves the next murder (because she surely will), but also because the author has made you care about these people and their lives. This is a great case study for how to craft long-term character arcs that will carry you through.
I think once you’re a writer that you read books differently. You note different things about how each author approaches plot or dialogue or character. So this multi-week immersive read of a single series, gave me some insight that I can use to craft better character arcs within my own series.
But let’s be honest here, this learning was secondary to my need for a mental break and a treat to look forward to at the end of the day. That’s what we want for our books, right? We want our readers to look forward to reading the next book (and the next and the next.) I always eagerly await the books in this series, and many other series, too. Including those by my fellow Blackbird writers—so many excellent books to choose from! Check out the Blackbird Bookstore and see if you find your next favorite read on the list.
And take a moment to tell us in the comments below, which mystery series is your favorite and why you love it! (Is it the characters or not?)