Empty

JT Ellison

There are times when nothing comes.

No words. No ideas. Nothing.

This is one of those times.

After four years of blogging, I’ve simply run out of things to say.

But that’s not a choice I can make. Even when there’s nothing floating around in my brain, no pithy comments, no stellar advice, no embarrassing moments to share, I have to write my blog. It’s a commitment I’ve made to you, the reader, to my blog mates, and ultimately, to myself.

So.

I will force the words onto the page, and hope for the best.

Thankfully, I’m not having this problem with the books. Books are fine. Books are groovy. The ideas are flowing non-stop, and so are the words. I’m at that awkward time of year that I’m writing a new book and editing a forthcoming title, which is always hard. It happens every time I’m just getting my legs under me with a story, boom – I have to all stop and go focus on the one prior. This is good and bad.

For starters, I am writing a series, which means the characters, their foibles and triumphs, all build from book to book. It makes life easy because the world is already built, the characters, for the most part, are the same, and I can simply insert them into a new case. But now that I’m six books in, changes are happening. Characters lives are altered.

One of the tricks I was using is coming back to bite me in the ass – setting each book seasonally instead of annually. As a matter of fact, book five begins within a couple of weeks of book four, and book six starts literally a few days after the end of book five. The fifth book takes place over three days. So that’s a lot of Taylor’s world sandwiched into a very short period of time. How much can a character change in three days?

Well, the obvious answer is as much as I want her to. But I’ve always tried to avoid major changes in her life – she is who she is, and if I’m writing her correctly, her reactions are going to be consistent regardless of circumstance. Consistent, in my mind, is good. But is consistent good for the character, the series, the stories?

I guess I don’t have anything to blog about because I am so involved in the decision making process of these two books that it’s taking all of my mental energy.

And of course, now that I’m forcing myself to type, it seems I have a topic after all.

Remember the old tongue twister: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

That’s kind of where I am with my girl. How much change can she sustain and still stay true to her nature? What kind of change is good, and builds the character? What kind of change is too much to handle? If I want to keep moving her story forward, she’s going to have to change, and change significantly.

Meh. I am starting to understand how shortsighted I was way back when I started writing these books. An iconic character is a noble goal, but no matter what you do, they have to change or the series becomes stagnant.

Let’s use our venerable favorite, Jack Reacher, as an example.

In my mind, Reacher is the ultimate series character. He is iconic in every sense of the word. He is a hero. He is consistent. You know what you’re going to get when you pick up a book by Lee Child.

But Reacher is far from predictable, and therein lies the true majesty of an iconic character. One who can alter subtly instead of “CHANGING” is the goal I had in mind. He even tries to change himself, but always ends up back where he started.

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker is another example I draw from when thinking of excellent series character. Parker does change, appreciably, but that change is a dynamic reaction to his circumstance in the opening book, and the rest of his changing is that subtle altering over the course of the series that Reacher does. Every time Parker tries to change, he ends up ruining things, so it’s easier to stay the same. (I’m simplifying this a wee bit, but remember, I’m struggling for cogent thought today, so bear with me.)

Well. I’ve now given myself a lot to think about.

How about you? How do you feel about series characters, and their evolution over time? Do you like drastic change, or something less appreciable? Any examples you could toss into the mix to help me think this through would be great appreciated!

(I’m at Bouchercon this weekend, so forgive me if I’m a bit lackadaisical. I’ll try to get to everyone over the course of the day.)

Wine of the Week: 2008 Tormaresca Neprica Puglia 

11 thoughts on “Empty

  1. Chris Hamilton

    Change should mirror life. Sometimes the changes are drastic and life-changing (like having a human troll doll dismantle your team and demote you) and sometimes they are subtle. What I intend to be careful of is Jack Bauer syndrome where there’s massive change over massive change and your character never really emotionally reacts to it.

    As for individual characters, I like the way Harry Bosch has changed over time.

    Reply
  2. Jessica Scott

    I haven’t read a whole lot of single character series but I do know that character growth is something I’ve struggled with. In the army, we have a saying: train as you fight. The reality is often true, though in that you fight however you’ve trained. What I mean by that is when the poo and the fan are making babies, you’re going to fall back on familiar patterns of acting or reacting. So my characters, when they hit their black moment, tend to fall back on their habits rather than their attempted new behaviors. How they get through it, though, is where the growth comes in. Radical change in characters, I think, comes from significant emotional events so as long as there is a reason for radical change, I can get on board with it.
    Have fun at Bucheron!

    Reply
  3. Karen in Ohio

    Some of the best characters never grow or change in any significant way: Jessica Fletcher, Stephanie Plum, Miss Marple. I’m not entirely sure readers always care about that. It never occurred to me that they would, as a reader; I just assumed they were only the vehicle to drive the story, and that their "development" didn’t matter. Of course if you can manage change and growth, that definitely makes your stories richer and more dimensional, and a better read. Allison does a great job of advancing her core characters; I’ve been fascinated by that aspect of her books. And I can think of other characters that do grow: Jesse Stone, Spenser, Nora Blackbird, just to name a few.

    I was at Bouchercon yesterday, and the first person I saw there was Alex. (It was great to meet you in person!) Also spotted Stephen, Brett, and maybe Tess? And if you were wearing a leather skirt, then I also saw you, JT! It was my first writer/reader conference, and I learned a lot in the four sessions I sat in on. I was impressed by how friendly and supportive all the writers are with each other and their readers. That dynamic seems unique to the book business.

    Reply
  4. jim duncan

    This something I’m actually dealing with now. I sold my first book and two more in what will become a series. I hadn’t written it originally with the thought that I was going to make it a series, but I left the ending somewhat open so that I could write more of story if it came to it. Fortunately for me, it has come to it. As I’ve been slowly working my brain around plot for book two, while waiting for contract stuff to get finalized, everything does indeed keep coming back to, "how are my characters going to change in this book?" I have the basic premise of the plot (I hope so at least), but attempting to look at the greater character arc is far more work. It’s all fun and good work mind you, but still.

    My two main characters aren’t what one would call in a "good mental state." There’s guilt, trauma, trust, self-esteem, and a few other issues they need to work on. It makes for interesting characters, but in thinking big picture, one has to consider just what and how will get resolved in book two and what will take longer than that to work out. Timing is certainly a big factor. Book two starts on the heels of book one, with only maybe a week of time passing. Things haven’t changed much. Things may not change much over the course of this story either. Book one happened over the course of a few days. Book two will not stretch much more than that. Even at a few weeks, how much change can happen? For me, I think it’s a chance to really dig deeper into the emotional lives of the character. This must be tempered with a suspenseful, action-driven plot that will keep the pages turning and meet reader expectations based on how book one played out. Balancing the two and keeping character development and change realistic is proving to be a challenge. I can see future books stretching time out a bit. I’ll need to. If six or seven books all fall within the timeframe of a few months, just how much change is going to be realistically expected? Serious emotional issues take time to deal with, and because I think this aspect is going to be central to the series, having books fall one after the other in time is going to make it hard to make it true to character. Unless of course, I can pull a JD Robb, and get a thirty book series.

    Reply
  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Hey you, I’m here at B-con as well, and will probably be sitting at your side when you read this!
    It ended up being a good post after all, eh?
    I’ve never been much of a series reader myself, so it feels strange for me to write one. When I was a kid I used to read the Doc Savage series, however, and I was OBSESSED with them. And Doc was always the same, great, heroic guy. I tend to read all the stand-alone books by the authors who I fall in love with. So I end up watching how the AUTHOR changes over the course of the books. The author becomes the ultimate series character for me.

    Reply
  6. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi JT

    I hear you on this one, because as I go into the next Charlie Fox book, she’s faced with major personal changes in her life, and she’s about to face probably her biggest challenge. One that will definitely change her outlook and perspective.

    My worry here is not so much allowing this character to change and grow, but that her changes might be too much for readers coming to the books later, out of order. I’ve also painted myself into a corner in that I need to find closure to something drastic that happened at the end of the last book, without giving away vital plot spoilers to anyone who reads the next one first.

    It’s about this time that my brain starts to leak out of my ears, very slowly …

    Reply
  7. Stacy McKitrick

    When I read a series I MUST read them in order. I don’t care how much care the author takes to make each one stand alone. I notice the differences in the character and I want to know what makes them the way they are.

    I can’t believe I’m the only reader who does this, either. If I’m interested in a series that’s been out awhile, then I want to read the book that got it started, not #5.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Wow folks. Thanks! Great food for thought here. I’m going to process and come back when I’m not on my iPhone : )!!!

    Reply
  9. BCB

    I’m not a big fan of the whole "change in three-to-seven days" thing. It’s one of my pet peeves and why so many endings that try to make me believe it instead leave me feeling sort of WTF? Real change takes time. It requires taking action over time as a result of a realization. So I’m fine with just the realization or a new understanding. [Don’t want to say the "hope for change" as it sounds like a campaign slogan.] I’m also fine with no change for some characters. That can be very endearing.

    And thanks for the laugh! I read the first two lines and thought, better get comfortable, this is going to be a long one.

    Reply

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