As I hope you’ve heard by now, I’m launching a new series with a new series character—rebel lawyer Daniel Pike. This project has been in the works for some time—I’ve already finished the first two books in the series and I’m editing the third. But the whole endeavor has caused me to think long and hard about what makes a durable series character who readers like enough to revisit again and again.
The first time around, I didn’t do this. Ben Kincaid was originally intended to be the protagonist of one novel: The Fixed Moment. (The publisher retitled it Primary Justice. I still don’t know what that means.) Of course, series characters were less prevalent then, and it might have been presumptuous of me to imagine I was launching a series since I’d never published anything, despite years of trying and hundreds of rejection letters. My beloved editor, Joe Blades, said he thought this guy could lead a series—and that’s what happened, for nineteen books (so far). Even when I later created Susan Pulaski, I was only thinking of a single book (Dark Eye), one with more psychological depth and heartache.
But now I’m older and I pretend to be wiser, so I’ve taken a somewhat more systematic approach. I looked at all the great series characters out there, like Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. I even looked at series books from previous eras, like Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books (which I recently completed reading and feel quite virtuous for having done so). What makes a series work? I asked myself. What brings readers back, book after book? I was enthusiastic about my lead character, Daniel Pike—but how could I inspire readers to feel the same?
This inquiry led me to this post, some suggestions for creating successful series characters. I assume you will instill your project with all the essential elements of good storytelling (and if you’re not sure what those are, reread those Red Sneaker writing books). But what does the main character need to succeed?
Here’s what I came up with. Call it the series character checklist:
1) Give the character something that makes him/her special.
This doesn’t have to be a flat-out superpower, but something distinctive, so the character isn’t just another lawyer, doctor, PI, cop, wizard, etc. The paradigm, of course, is Sherlock Holmes, whose inductive reasoning abilities allowed him to solve complex puzzles. I gave Daniel Pike something similarly cognitive, but more related to the work of a lawyer. He has the ability to make careful observations of the people he encounters—which often allows him to discern hidden truths. Sometimes he gets it simply by watching people, uncovering liars. Sometimes it’s by combining observations in meaningful and unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s pure instinct. But it’s a power most lawyers don’t have (trust me) and I thought it would not only make him a miracle worker in the courtroom—but a delight to watch in action.
2) Give the character something that makes him/her fun.
First and foremost, I gave Daniel a sense of humor. At times, it’s a bit acerbic, but he’s never boring. I thought that if he made readers laugh, they were bound to like him more. His success as a lawyer has led to a first-class lifestyle (a complete contrast to Ben Kincaid), a fondness for gourmet cooking, extreme sports, and fast cars. All fun stuff to read about, right? Some of Daniel’s recipes should make your mouth water—and they are all dishes I’ve made myself. Maybe I should include recipes…
3) Give the character something that makes him/her quirky.
Daniel’s a rebel. Though with a big law firm when the book starts, he’s not part of the corporate culture. He lives on a boat—because why not?—he wears Air Jordans in court, and he carries a backpack rather than a briefcase. I mean, honestly, doesn’t that make more sense? Much easier on the back. Making your series character eccentric or unusual will enhance their memorability. You want to give the reader something to hold onto, so when the next book in the series rolls around, they will think, Oh yeah, he’s the guy in the sneakers…
4) Give the character something he/she’s passionate about.
Daniel is passionate about justice, and not as an abstract concept but as a reality he fights for in the courtroom. He likes making money, sure, but his primary drive is preventing people from being railroaded by the government. He has a personal reason why he feels so strongly about this. He believes that in reality, most people are presumed guilty and prosecutors have a devastating ability to put people away regardless of their guilt. He refuses to let the government destroy people’s lives. This is the driving force behind his career, behind every case he accepts. To him, it’s not about whether his clients are good or bad people. He will fight to see that justice is done.
If you can give your character those four critical qualities, you’ll have someone capable of carrying a series. And this is a good time to do it. Series books have never been more popular. Publishers see series books as the safest bet they can make. Readers enjoy revisiting characters they love. It’s a win-win, if you can bring it off. But it all starts with creating the right character.