Valerie Biel is the author of the Circle of Nine series of YA books. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.
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?)
This Post Has 25 Comments
Valerie — Holy Toledo! You never do anything by halves. A fifty-plus book binge is epic! My favorite series writers include Louise Penny, David Baldacci, and Robert Dugoni.
I’ve never read Robert Dogoni! More for my to-be-read list!
or D – U – goni . . . seriously autocorrect?
Look up prolific reader in a dictionary, and your picture would be there, Valerie! I have read my childhood favorite, the Nancy Drew mystery series four times. That’s 64 books four times. I find them comforting, especially when I need a major escape. They influenced me to write my own kids’ mystery series, The Botanic Hill Detectives Mysteries. Thanks for sharing.
Definitely some of my favorites! I love the backstory of all the writers who were “Carolyn Keene” through the years.
You picked a great series for your binge, Valerie! My favorite author to binge on is Sue Grafton. And if my husband wasn’t watching TV with me in the evenings, I would be mid-binge on Downton Abbey right now. As it is though, I’m having to pace myself. 🙂
I have the best story about the Sue Grafton novels. Back in the fall of 2000, we had just moved into a new house out in the country and we didn’t have a satellite dish installed yet. My husband was away in another state running a political campaign. My mother-in-law (another voracious reader) sent me the entire Sue Grafton series–which would have been up to letter “P” at that point. Oh boy, was that lovely! I put the kids to bed and read every night. 🙂
Great post, Valerie! I find that I get tired of series after about book 16 and I think a lot of it has to do with character development. If the character doesn’t learn along the way and get annoyed with them. This trap has been avoided by my favorite bing series, Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. Georgie and her hilarious maid Queenie both grow and change and I love it.
Oooh, another series to try. I’ve read other books by Rhys but not this series. (I follow her on Facebook, so we’re like best buds and on a first-name basis now LOL.)
It’s funny. I don’t tend to binge read series. I like mixing things up. I love series, though. I do sometimes binge on Harry Potter or the Percy Jackson series.
Love those two, too!!
Love this post on binge reading! Thanks for mentioning my article about what to remember when writing a mystery series.
Eve and Roark are memorable, larger-than-life characters. Perfect beach-read material. Thanks for the thoughtful post!
Your checklist is awesome, Marilyn!
I’ve binge-watched Downton Abbey several times–never tire of that! Right now my husband and I are watching Hitchcock movies one after the other. In books, I tend to read books by authors I love, whether they are part of a series or not, so I guess I’m drawn more to the author than to the characters. At the moment, I’m enjoying books by Blackbird Writers–what a talented bunch!
I love Downton Abbey, too. I used to watch the new episode on Sunday evenings followed by a new episode of the Walking Dead. My husband would walk through the family room and it’d be all tea and formality and then he’d walk back through to zombies chomping on whoever was the latest victim. I’m a versatile viewer. LOL
I’m like Anne. I enjoy a series but I tend to skip around. I love a lot of authors but just don’t have the time to read every book in their series, but I do return to series authors often. I haven’t read all of James Lee Burke, for example, but I’ll choose his new books now and then for vacations because they are guaranteed quality and such a treat for me with extraordinary settings, plots, and characterizations.
There’s never enough time to read — like ever — ever, ever. 🙂
That’s why I would call a tour de force! I compare my paltry 8 books in my series and haven’t a clue how some of these authors do it. Luckily, they do.
And the fact that there’s still such a great following and they sell, sell, sell! And 8 IS NOT paltry . . . but geesh 50+ . . . it’s crazy to imagine writing that many, isn’t it?
It’s funny, I’ve binge-watched TV episodes but never series books in succession. I’ll have to give it a try. Good post!
It was a pretty cool case study. 🙂
You’re a force of nature! And, good job! You’ve sold me on the JD Robb books, too! I don’t usually read every book in a series because I haven’t given myself the deserved “break” from writing. Someday. In the meantime, I do love alternate media series and with my husband, I’ve binge-watched many! Still, I haven’t had time to finish watching Criminal Minds. My favorite was Mind Hunters–based on the true-to-life story of how serial killer profiling within the FBI came about. Still waiting for the next in that series!
I will love to hear what you think of the J.D. Robb books! And, yes I really enjoyed Mind Hunters. I’m not sure they’re actually going to create season 3. 🙁 I’m sad about that!