by Sean Chercover
I just got back from Thrillerfest, where Marcus and I were on panel (with great fellow panelists Jack DuBrul, Christine Goff and super moderator Jon Land) about the pros and cons of writing a series. One of the subjects we batted around was whether a series protagonist should grow and evolve over time, or remain basically unchanged.
When I sat down to write the second Ray Dudgeon novel, I found that Ray had to have been changed by his experiences in Big City, Bad Blood. Had to. You just can’t go through the kind of hell Ray went through in that book and come out of it unchanged. It was the only way for me to continue believing in him.
But that’s Ray. There are some excellent series characters that don’t fundamentally change, no matter what happens to them over the course of a series.
Two of my favorites: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. These guys are larger-than-life archetypes, both relatively unchanging over time. Yet I have no trouble believing in them.
I’m generally more interested in character than plot, so in most cases a static protagonist will only hold my interest for a few books, and then I'll move on to a different series. I usually prefer evolving series protagonists. But Child is such a damn good writer and storyteller (and Reacher is such a damn good character) that I’m always eager for the next book. The same can be said (in the past tense) for MacDonald and McGee.
(Sure, McGee was a product of his time and his attitude toward women is at times cringe inducing. But he did reflect many men of his era, so it doesn’t diminish his believability. The same criticism cannot be made of Reacher. Reacher respects women as his equals, and the Reacher books are well populated by strong and intelligent women.) But I digress . . .
Another thing that keeps the Reacher series fresh is that some books are written in the third person, others in the first. So even if the character is not changing much, the shift of perspective gives us different views of him.
My favorite evolving series characters? Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder leap to mind. And, as our panel moderator pointed out, James Bond changed a great deal over the course of the original Ian Fleming series.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you prefer to pick up the next book in a series knowing that you will find a reliable archetype, or are you looking for a character that has been changed by his/her previous experiences? Who are your favorite archetypal or evolving characters? And why?