So Alex did it to me again. She sent out a vibe three thousand miles away, found out exactly what I was thinking, pulled it from my brain, and wrote a fabulous blog about love and sex in mysteries.
I’d been thinking about this subject a lot lately as I write the second book of my Lucy Kincaid series. Why? Because with an ongoing relationship, the love scene takes on a different meaning, and to keep them from being staid, “insert part A into slot B”, each scene needs to bring the characters closer or push them apart, while also complicating the relationship or raising the stakes. That’s a lot harder to do, I’m discovering, in book two of a series (and probably book three, book four, book five . . . if I’m so lucky.)
So because Alex invaded my thoughts and plucked my idea, I went with the next logical discussion point: character growth in the series.
I wrote twelve romantic thrillers which were more or less stand alones. Not purely stand alones, but each one had a separate hero/heroine and a separate crime, which was resolved by the end of the book. The only continuity was the occasional recurrence of secondary characters, some of whom had been or would be stars in their own book. The only trilogy that was more than loosely connected was the Prison Break trilogy where in book one (KILLING FEAR) an earthquake under San Quentin frees a group of death row inmates and each book handles a different escapee, until book three where the last escapee is trying to prove his innocence and enlists his estranged daughter’s help.
Because the story, protagonists, and villains are different, I don’t really think of these as a series—more like they’re crimes happening in the same fictional world.
The Lucy Kincaid series is truly a series, with the same core group of characters facing different crimes. Lucy was previously a secondary character in my “No Evil” trilogy who was kidnapped in FEAR NO EVIL. Because of her past—not only what happened to her but how she responded both then and now, six years later—I find her one of the most compelling characters I’ve gotten to know. Everything she’s done for the last six years is to land her a job with the FBI, but she’s not there yet. Her love interest is Sean Rogan, a private investigator and security expert who has had run-ins with the FBI, and not all of them friendly. We don’t know his entire past, but there are enough hints in the first book to suggest that he hasn’t always been a law-abiding citizen. Well, he’s not exactly a law-abiding citizen now, either—just better.
There are other recurring characters, some more important than others (like FBI Agent Noah Armstrong who Sean calls “Mr. Law & Order”—and not very nicely, I might add!—especially after Lucy develops a camaraderie with the agent. Patrick Kincaid, Lucy’s older brother who was seriously injured rescuing her in FEAR, is Sean’s partner, and there may be other characters from previous stories who will pop in, depending on the story.
I’m not worried about story ideas–I have a lot of ideas for Lucy. I can “see” the characters and what type of crimes would draw them in and challenge them, while tapping into something in their past. What I’ve truly been wrestling with is multi-book character growth. There are two primary concerns here: first, that my characters continue to grow and change, organic to the story, in each book. And second, that new readers coming in mid-series will get both a complete story, and not be lost in understanding the character and their decisions.
Writing a stand-alone—where two characters (for me, a hero and heroine)—I know what to expect, at least as far as the character arc. The reader needs to be satisfied that the characters have grown to the point where they have solved their internal problems and can have a life and stay together (the romance part of “romantic suspense.) In my book THE HUNT, for example, the hero FBI Agent Quinn Peterson prevented the heroine Miranda Moore from graduating at the FBI Academy—he had her kicked out because of a psych exam. Considering that they were lovers at the time obviously caused much consternation—Quinn felt that Miranda was on a personal vendetta against a serial killer who killed her best friend, so much so that she’d make a dangerous agent. Miranda felt betrayed that Quinn had her tossed from the academy, and that what he believed about her mental stability. Fast forward twelve years and they are working on a case together—Miranda in search and rescue looking for a missing college girl who fits the pattern of the serial killer, and Quinn as the FBI Agent most familiar with the case. They obviously have to find the girl before she’s killed, and identify and catch the killer, but layered over that is Quinn’s perception that Miranda is too close and reckless, Miranda’s personal fears about the killer, yet ultimately Miranda’s knowledge of the Gallatin Valley is essential to finding the killer. They have to work together—they have no choice if they’re to save the girl.
By the end of the story, Miranda faces her fears and proves to Quinn that he was wrong about her stability and she ; Miranda accepts that twelve years ago she was too close to the case; time and experience gave her the ability. By the end, she forgives Quinn because she now understands herself and her flaws—but more importantly, what her motivation was then and is now. The End.
In a series, I need to take Lucy and Sean to the next logical level in the relationship without having a complete conclusion. There should always be reader satisfaction, but a hint of doubt and conflict for the future. Each book needs to grow on that. JD Robb’s Eve Dallas and Roarke are models for this—you know they love each other and will stay together . . . but they both have a past and conflicts. For example, when Roarke’s previous lover comes to New York, Eve’s insecurities about their relationship come forward and Roarke, true to personality, is angry that Eve doesn’t trust him and his feelings.
But more than their personal relationship, each character has to grow and change in the story, without rehashing the same problems over and over. Therein lies the difficulty. Keeping the characters growing, changing, but having conflict in each story. Keeping the love scenes from being more than just physical acts of sex, but emotional turning points for one or both of the characters.
What I’ve decided to do, at least for book two, is take Lucy’s primary insecurity—that she isn’t “normal” because of her past, and run with it by highlighting how “normal” Sean is and see where it takes the two of them. Lucy is serious and focused; Sean is a daredevil and charming. Put in a female character like Sean and Lucy’s insecurities will shine. The female cop who is helping them find a missing teenager is everything that Lucy wants to be and thinks she isn’t–attractive on multiple levels, from personality to looks, having “normal” interests outside of work. The cop’s life and past doesn’t consume her: she’s doing a job and has a personal life. Lucy has a hard time separating these, and seeing how Sean is so natural with the stranger highlights Lucy’s fears and insecurities about not only herself, but their relationship. This should be the core conflict in all the scenes between Sean and Lucy, hanging over them, but be at least partly resolved by the end of the story.
Character development should be organic to the story, the the love scenes should continue that whether they are graphic or tame. I’m hoping that each book I can find one more area to work on. I’m finding I love writing a series, but at the same time? It’s just as hard as a stand alone. But in this business, nothing is easy.
Just curious . . . do you prefer stand alones or series? Why or why not? Does it matter?
Must be something in the air, eh?
I guess I’m drawn first to a series as a general reading preference. But in terms of the romance element drawn out over a series, it can get irritating to me and I’m trying to figure out why that is. Perhaps it is that the interactions seem more like manipulations as in "okay, now they have to have a misunderstanding that threatens their relationship". Formula for the sake of adding an obstacle in the plot. Your example of Eve and Rourke is a good one — it feels like a real relationship with its ups and downs but it is a constant. Yet, Eve is always a cop solving a crime.
When done well (ish), sometimes for me the relationship development over a series is what draws me back with each new release. My examples will be historical mysteries since that is what I read most. CS Harris’s series had an intense relationship in the first couple books that resulted in disastrous, emotional turmoil and now the protagonist has a new love interest that is much more interesting. Tasha Alexander’s and Deanna Raybourn’s books have a romantic element that I like almost more than the crime solving.
I read both; I enjoy both. However, I find I don’t say "There’s a new Bosch book out," but rather, "Connelly has a new book out." Reading a series, for me, is like having coffee at Starbuck’s with an old friend. Delving into a stand alone is meeting my friend’s friend. Whether my new friend is introduced to me by Stuart Woods or Louise Ure, any friend of theirs….
I love Judy’s comparison to seeing a friend versus meeting a friend’s friend. I feel the same way, though would certainly not have thought of that explanation.
I enjoy stand alones more often than series … perhaps because I’m not always caught up on the series books. But you’ve struck a chord with your admonition about character development, in either kind of book. Think about Lisbeth Salander. While we grew to know a great deal about her backstory by book three, I never got a sense that she’d grown or changed.
PK I totally know what you mean! I think a strong and complex, but real, relationship can make the suspense elements even stronger. There’s more at stake and more we care about. For me, the suspense always comes first but the relationship must be organic to the story. Though, that said, there are some romances I love because of the rich world and strong voice and incredible characters.
I’m at a volleyball tournament and will log back in shortly!
Hey, Allison . . .
I read both and don’t really have a preference. Like Judy, I enjoy going into a known world with series. But I DO want the characters to grow from book to book. That’s also why I liked writing the Sasha series — because I wanted to grow her, to give her more depth as the series went on.
But there’s something refreshing about reading a standalone too. It’s neat to have most everything tied up by the end of one, to have a discreet unit rather than wondering and expecting another installment.
I like reading a series. I love returning to my favorite characters. But, I also like your stand alone books with some familiar characters. You don’t have to know them to enjoy the story, but if you do know them it adds another layer to your reading pleasure.
Carnal Sin was awesome! Thanks for a great read.
My preference for any book, series or stand alone, revolves around how the story works for me as I read it. What I gain is often dependant on what is happening in my world.
I make this distinction because sometimes there are characters that I am happy to tread a well worn path, with minimal character growth. I like the friend analogy so will borrow madly.
To me the minimal character growth story is like a really undemanding friend. The type of friend you may not set the world on fire with, you may not evolve much beyond a certain level of intimacy, but it’s comfortable. Depending on what is happening in my world I’m happy to read a book like this because it doesn’t ask anything of me, the reader.
If however I’m up for a bit of introspection about how I see the world and my place in it, I will reach for either a stand alone or series book where relationships interplay with the action.
I find it’s not so much a choice between series or stand alone, but the depth I’m prepared to go to as a reader at any given moment.
Thanks Allison for asking the question that made me think about my choices and has proved a really good distraction from what looks like a challenging Monday. Australia time….
Bugger. That bit about interplay with characters/action….there should of been a bit about growth through situational character development assisting my own expanded world view….it’s sort of implied.
I enjoy and read both. Having written a series character where there had to be growth, I can completely empathize. It’s a difficult task to find obstacles that they have to overcome without playing the same hand over and over again, but really, in life, we all hit obstacles at every age, every level of our relationships. We’re not always going to agree how to handle those obstacles, even when we want our significant other to join along in our plans or vice verse.
I have to say I love Judy’s description up there. I am writing a stand alone right now, and am loving the fact that this will be a complete world. Started, finished, done.
I’m just a reader, and I like stand alones, but more so I like the development of characters in a series, and I enjoy how an author makes that development interesting. I enjoy watching love interests grow as well, and I really enjoy lovers being real and not too mushy. It’s okay with me if things go awry, and the characters have to work on themselves and their relationships. Needless to say, I enjoy your writings.
All very good comments, and I think the consensus is that it doesn’t matter as long as each book, stand alone or series, is a complete story with character growth (for the most part.) I think what I’m finding hard is what Toni said–making sure that the obstacles are different for each book, rather than rehashing the same old problems.
Sorry for the briefness of my comments, but after spending all day in a gym without air conditioning, I’m totally drained, and now am taking my other daughter to dinner to celebrate her return from camp.
(And I’ll ditto the great Judy explanation!) 🙂
Thanks Jill and Lil for the compliments! I appreciate it 🙂
If I like the characters, I want a series. I’ve written stand alones, connected books and a series (if you can call 2 books a series.) When I close a book and everything is resolved, be it a relationship or a mystery (or both), if I like the characters, I’ll want more.
I agree, you have to deal with a different kind of sexual interaction when a relationship has already been established in a prior book. But, heck, I’ve been married 41 years and … 🙂
Can’t say I have a preference between series or stand alones. Usually though, I like the series to come to a conclusion of some kind. For example, I loved the first dozen or so JD Robb books, but then things seem get into a lull as far as character development and I burned out on them about book 17. And the sex didn’t seem to me to always be something that advanced either the characters or the story. So, I can definitely see your points here. It’s difficult to keep things developing as it were over the course of a long series. Hopefully I can manage to do so with mine.