It is undeniable that one of the great cornerstones of the mystery genre is the creation of a series—the process whereby a single protagonist moves from one story to the next, solving crimes and facing peril along the way. There can be no question that writing a series has many strong advantages. For example, if a writer hits on a formula that excites and engages an audience, those readers will follow that writer’s protagonist from book to book, eagerly awaiting each new adventure. This model has proven its worth from works like Sherlock Holmes to today’s Jack Reacher.
Some writers, however, choose to eschew the series and instead write a string of standalone novels, with each new work offering the reader a new protagonist in a new story world. This alternative lets the writer play with narrative voice and structure, changing things up from book to book under the assumption that readers tend to come to standalones with few preconceptions. However, with the standalone model, there is no beloved character to welcome the reader back, thus depriving the audience of that feeling of getting reacquainted with an old friend.
But there is a third option, one that combines aspects of both the series and the standalone, and that is to write about a community of characters. In the community model, the author creates a secondary character or a group of secondary characters in an early work and then goes forward writing stories for different members of that community, allowing each to take on the role of protagonist in successive novels. This is a formula that I stumbled upon and have thoroughly enjoyed exploring.
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First, you should know that I didn’t consciously set out to write about a community of characters. When I wrote my debut novel, The Life We Bury, I wasn’t thinking about what would come next. I was simply following Toni Morrison’s advice and writing the book that I wanted to read. Because of that, I wrote about a twenty-one year old college kid, an average Joe, who gets pulled in to a mystery through an English assignment. With a college student as a protagonist, I left myself little room to make the story into a series because I didn’t want to conjure up scenarios where that college kid might stumble over more crimes that needed to be solved. But I liked the cast of characters I had created in The Life We Bury, and wanted to continue telling stories from that world.
It was about then that I read Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day and Live by Night, the first two books in his Coughlin trilogy. The first book, The Given Day, has as its protagonist, Danny Coughlin, the oldest of the three Coughlin brothers. I opened the second book, Live by Night, expecting to continue reading about Danny only to find that Danny was hardly mentioned. Instead, Lehane made the second book all about Joe, the youngest of the three brothers. As a writer, this decision intrigued me. As a reader, I felt a connection to Joe, as though he and I shared a secret.
It was my experience in reading those two novels that led me to write about a community of characters. My second book focused on Max Rupert, a homicide detective and secondary character from The Life We Bury. In my third novel I pitted Rupert against an attorney named Boady Sanden, who was also a minor character in The Life We Bury. My most recent novel is a prequel for Boady Sanden, Nothing More Dangerous, which tell his story when he was fifteen years old, and my next book will have at its protagonist yet another secondary character from The Life We Bury, Joe’s girlfriend, Lila Nash.
Of course, I am not the first author to use a secondary character to launch a new book. Dorothy L. Sayers created her protagonist Harriet Vane as a falsely-accused murderess in Strong Poison, a novel in her Lord Peter Wimsey series. Sayer then made Harriet the protagonist of her own stories. More recently, Tana French has risen to prominence with a community of protagonists in her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. And there are new authors like Karen Ellis adding their voices to this form of the genre all the time.…I feel as though I have an open invitation to explore different forms of voice and structure for each new protagonist.
One of the greatest advantages I see in writing about a community is that because I draw my heroes from a collection of characters, I feel as though I have an open invitation to explore different forms of voice and structure for each new protagonist. I have written in first person and third, past tense and present, single point of view and multiple. I have written male protagonists and female protagonists. I’ve moved my stories chronologically and bounced around in time. I’ve written stories set in the present day and stories set entirely in the past. I try to be consistent in voice and structure when writing more than one book with the same protagonist, but outside of that, my approach is limited only by my imagination and whim.
Another benefit of writing about a community is that I can achieve a certain level of reader loyalty, the kind of thing that writers of series strive to achieve. Readers of The Life We Bury, remembered my secondary characters with a fondness that rekindled when those secondary characters stepped onto center stage. I have found great satisfaction in getting asked by readers to write more stories about my various characters, and I even get requests to write about secondary characters who have not yet been the protagonist of their own story.
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I once spoke to an author who wrote a series and who felt boxed in by it. This author wanted to try something new, but didn’t want to lose readership. My advice was to write the next novel as part of that series but create a particularly memorable secondary character—one that would resonate with the readers almost to the point of upstaging the hero. Then give that character a novel of his or her own and see how it goes. I know of another writer who wrote a standalone using a new character but then slipped his series protagonist into the story as a supporting character, achieving the same result with a different approach.
I think that I can credibly argue that I have enjoyed my journey all the more because of the freedom that I have felt in being able to experiment with my writing. Yes, a series is a terrific thing; it is the backbone of the mystery genre. But if a writer should choose to go down the path of drawing protagonists from a community of characters, my advice would be to take advantage of the opportunity. Spread your wings. Experiment. Write that next book in a way that is unique to that new character. Have fun with it. In the end, the writer may find that the experience opens them to a whole new world of possibility and satisfaction.