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Authentic, Intriguing and Likeable

How to create a character strong enough to carry a series.

I’ve been reading a lot of Ann Cleeves’ Vera novels recently – brilliantly-paced murder mysteries set in Northumberland. Vera Stanhope is the detective at the centre of each story: a doggedly determined woman who solves complex murders and is intriguing enough to sustain crime fans’ interest over 11 books. (The 12th book of the series, The Dark Wives, will be released in August).

Most successful lead characters in fiction tend to be authentic, intriguing and likeable but in a series these qualities need to be dialed up for us to still be interested in a character several books in. These lead characters need to leap off the page. They need to be memorable, just like Vera Stanhope.

Vera is an entirely authentic DI. She’s a middle-aged woman who works long hours and is demanding of her team. She’s intelligent, in control and professional but she also bends the rules when it suits her and suffers from pride (needing to be the one who solves every case) and the occasional bursts of spitefulness with her colleagues. Her job is everything and she worries what will become of her when she retires.

Her private life is intriguing (and complex). She still lives in the farmhouse she grew up in, despite having an unhappy childhood. She doesn’t have children of her own and has never had a relationship, despite craving both. She drinks too much (and tries to hide it) and eats too much (and can’t hide it). She dresses in a way that causes people to assume she’s homeless. She cares what people think about her weight and looks but doesn’t do much about it. She doesn’t have many friends – just her neighbours and her detective sidekick, Joe Ashworth.

Lead characters in a series don’t have to be likeable (consider Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley series of novels) but it helps enormously when they are. Vera is immediately likeable. Her actions, dialogue and internal dialogue reveal her to be kind and no-nonsense. She empathises with her victims and the people who are grieving and is determined to get justice for those who’ve been killed. She’s a good sort you’d want on your side. Consider what your can do, early on in a story, to get a reader rooting for your main character. Is it the way that they talk to someone, stand up for someone, or the way their conscience won’t let them take advantage of a situation? Are they fundamentally kind? Do they stay awake at night wishing they'd been better behaved?

As well as being believable, intriguing and likeable, a good backstory is essential for a lead character in a series. You don’t need to give away everything in the first book, but you do need to establish (or hint at) a backstory that is interesting and that can be made use of in future books. Vera’s mother died when she was a child and she grew up with a taciturn father who didn’t pay her much attention and used to take her with him, often using her as a reluctant look-out, when he stole rare bird eggs for collectors.

It’s an unusual back story and it allows us not only to make sense of her wanting to be a detective (she disapproved of her father’s activities and now wants to uphold the law), but also explains her isolation (no one came back to the farm when she was growing up) and lack of success with men (the relationship with her father was complicated; she lived with him until he died). What you don’t want is a backstory set out in stone in the first book. Allow yourself some room to include other characters and other events in future books.

If a lead character is going to have their own arc in a series you need to decide this before you start book 1. What is that arc going to be? Is it to do with their relationship or their career? Is it something they have to come to terms with? Or battle?

If you’re writing a crime series, you may not want or need your character to have their own big story line in addition to them solving each murder, but all characters change over the course of a series, even if it’s just the fact that they’re getting older. A character in book 10 of a series will naturally be different to how she was in book 1. She’ll be older, possibly less fit, maybe more cynical or more forgiving or have nothing left to give. Maybe she's exhausted, or depressed (or furious or vengeful) because she's lost a sidekick or a best friend. Maybe she's lost the respect of her colleagues after making mistakes. Her core character might remain unchanged but you will have to write in some changes to keep her believable.

If you’d like to workshop your series’ lead character, please send me an email.





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