Growing characters

When I was in high school (think long straight hair, granny-glasses, and ankle-length skirts, the only hippie in Tacoma, Washington) I was a tremendous Simon and Garfunkel fan. Back in the dark ages, before cassettes and 8-tracks, I would buy one of their albums as soon as it came out, or as soon as I could cajole my parents into taking me to a record store, and plunk it down on my portable LP turntable, and listen to it.

And invariably, I would hate it.

But because I couldn’t quite accept that, and because I’d paid good money for it, I would play it again. And again. And pretty soon, I would hear the nuances and not the differences, and fall in love with this version of the singers, and it would be my very most favorite of all.

I’ve found the same thing with writers. I know I hated the first of Dorothy Sayers’ novels that I read, although granted, it really wasn’t her best (the one with the Evil Lesbian—even the title is boring: UNNATURAL DEATH.) And the same with Lee Child, and Bob Crais, and a number of other writers whose first acquaintance just didn’t do it for me, but whom I love, respect, and buy in hardback the first day they’re out now.

(This doesn’t always happen, that I change my mind. If it did, I’d make a point of trying a second volume of any writer I didn’t like, which would be a real headache. Though it would sure be nice to be able to figure out which I don’t like, and which I’d absolutely adore if I gave them a second chance.)

I’ve been thinking about this (and the following is not so much a parallel line of thought as a tangent) because I just read Bob Crais’s new novel, WATCHMAN, and it led me back to one or two of his early Elvis Coles. (As a side note, I often reread books when I’m in the throes of a hard writing slog. I can’t not read, but the parts of my brain needed for the work are just too close to the parts that follow a new story line and new characters.)

It is fascinating, and awe-inspiring, to watch a writer grow. I watched this happen with Reginald Hill, whose early cop whodunits moved out of the set of stereotypes he’d set up for them (very good stereotypes, funny and vivid and colorful, but still) into true novels that explored the characters he’d been playing with for a while. Real emotion began to sneak in, believable motivation instead of the games of the genre, and the humor changed from jokes to situational absurdity, and occasionally had a very dark edge. PICTURES OF PERFECTION is one of my all-time favorite novels, scary and funny and warm all at the same time. A cozy thriller, if you can imagine that. Personally, I find his recent novels just too much, beginning with the much-praised ON BEULAH HEIGHT, but BONES AND SILENCE, RECALLED TO LIFE, and PICTURES OF PERFECTION are just gorgeous.

And now Bob Crais is doing the same thing, taking his very decorative and entertaining chessboard characters and breathing life into them. Elvis Cole still does his morning yoga on the deck, Joe Pike still wears those damned sunglasses, the feral cat still growls, but where in the first books those set pieces were surface amusements, one now begins to see just where the yoga and the sunglasses come from.

If you don’t know Crais, and want to see what I mean, get one of his early books—THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT is the first, but STALKING THE ANGEL or LULLABY TOWN will do as well. Then get L.A.REQUIEM, and see the characters stirring and coming to life. Then go out and get the WATCHMAN, because hardback sales are important to authors. And while you’re in the bookstore, pick up THE LAST DETECTIVE, too, and maybe THE FORGOTTEN MAN, because you’ll want to read those as well. (I’m only talking about the Cole series here, but his standalones are great, too.)

Why do some writers grow like this, where others repeat themselves? Of course, some repetition is inevitable, in a business that sells identifiable products (When an author hits a certain level of popularity, he or she is called a “franchise” author, which may tell you something.) And when it comes to a series, the familiarity is a large part of its appeal.

But it’s like the repetitive bore at the family reunion, whose stories—although once interesting—everyone has heard a hundred times before: When a writer works with the same characters year in and year out, finding new stories for them to tell can be tough.

Both Hill and Crais, by the way, write outside their series. And I suspect that, in both their cases, the non-series novels don’t sell quite as well, because people want the same, but different. In the case of these two men, they found it by writing the same characters, but reaching down into them and finding a new and mature voice.

Rather like Simon and Garfunkel used to, back in the day.

Comments

  1. I hope you don’t tire of (writing) Russel and Holmes. I find their developing/evolving relationship fascinating. When I went back and re(re)read The Moor, I was stuck by how different their relationship had become by The Game–particularly the difference in the balance of power between the two partners. (Sorry if I am not making sense–I have been cataloguing books written in foreign languages today, and my brain is stuck in French-German-Italian-Spanish-Swedish mode now.)

    Anyway. Even though “some repetition is inevitable” (isn’t that just life?), rest assured that you do not repeat yourself. I hope that you (want to) continue finding new stories for Russel and her Holmes.

  2. Well, as you are clearly one of the ones who does it right, you must have a clue or two 🙂

    I wonder (pondered the non-writer) if the clue isn’t in what you wrote at the end about trying to find new stories to tell about old characters. Maybe the ones who don’t do it so well are in the mental habit of thinking of their characters more like figures moving through the story: the important bits are the settings and sequences of events, not so much how those things shape and change the characters themselves (I don’t know why, but I have a funny image of an author moving Barbie dolls through a doll house). And maybe the ones who do it well think first in terms of why the characters are the way they are, and how they’ve changed since we saw them last, and what kinds of stories those changes will lead them to.

    But I do know what you mean, and I can recall moments of sadness upon realizing that an author whose work I had always loved had reached the end of his/her ability to do anything except move the dolls around the house . . .

  3. You just gave me insight into why I enjoy your books so much. You write with and through the lives of your characters and you care about your characters or are at least involved in their lives even when they aren’t “good” people. They drive the story not some point you want to make or your vision of what you want to have happen. Of course in mysteries you always have to focus on certain mechanics – getting to the end point, making sure the facts are available, and making things hang together. But you don’t sacrifice your characters to those ends. I think that is why I enjoy reading your books again and again. The first time for what happens, the second time more for the characters and what is going on with them, and a third time for the whole picture.
    Thanks! Gail

  4. Gail, you took the words right out of my mouth! *snaps jaw shut*
    Clearly Laurie does care about her characters and in each book there is some development or change in them. They are very dynamic. I think Roxanne brings up an excellent point about Holmesy and Russell. Their relationship and their characters are always changing…Russell because, well she is still young, and Holmes because he is married and still learning to adapt to what that entails mentally and emotionally. Although sometimes I want to slap the man across the face and say, “Darn it Holmes, she is your wife! A little compassion please.” I think that part of his personality will never change. I am curious to see, Laurie, how all the emotional issues in Locked Rooms will change the Russell/Holmes relationship!

    Yes, and I as well hope you never grow tired of writing about Holmes and Russell. There is so much that could be done with them (and I don’t mean babies either).

    On your note about weak characters, I began reading Patricia Cornwell books recently since they are up my professional alley and I was wholly disappointed. The characters, especially in the later books, are weak and the writing is not the best. I felt like it was, well, empty..like dolls moving through a bare dollhouse as WDI said. I was so upset, I picked up Monstrous Regiment of Women and read it again!

  5. Hello Mrs. King. My name’s Mariana and I’m from Brazil, I came to know your blog a couple of months ago, but I’m quite shy, and my English is not very good, so just now I’m posting here.I came to know about your books on Internet, mostly in Sherlock Holmes’ pages. I read about them but unfortunately they’re not edited in Brazil. But last year I discovered that a Brazillian on-line book shop which seels it. It takes 6 weeks to get here, but it worth waiting. I’m now almost finishing “A Letter of Mary”, and loving it! I’m a Holmes fan for over 6 years and your books are an “inspiration” for a fan who read about 6 times each one of the original ACD books. By now I’m the only person I know who reads them here, but I’ve created a Orkut community for Mary Russell fans to look for another more fans. It’s just a fans community, I even have a disclaimer saying that I’m not beying paid, and things like that. It’s just a place for fans to get to know each other. That’s it. I wish the best for you! 🙂

  6. Dona Delia says:

    Bom dia, Mariana. Thirty years ago I lived in Brazil for five years. Novo Hamburgo. I’m excited that you have found Laurie King’s books. Keep posting on this site! We all have a wonderful time. Ate logo!

  7. Mariana:

    No worries. Your English is just fine. More than fine. Nice to “meet” you on this blog.

    I just reread this post. “Long straight hair, granny-glasses, and ankle-length skirts?” Hey–that’s still me!

    Roxanne

  8. Hello Roxanne!! Nice to “meet” you here too! dona delia, glad to meet you here!! I can’t believe you are from Novo Hamburgo, I’m from the Rio Grande do Sul state too!! my gosh, what a coincidence!! My parents live in the southern RS, and I study in Santa Maria, in the middle of the state. I noticed everydody has a good time here, let’s keep talking! See ya!
    Love, Mariana

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