Monday, September 28, 2009

Palladins, Seekers, and Other Icons

How many books should a series run?

As long as it takes....

Since I'm beginning my second series, I've been thinking a lot about this. I've decided that there are two kinds of series in crime fiction and they depend on the type of ICONs they feature as main characters.

The first type of series can sustain many books and go on, well, forever--until readers get bored or the author runs out of patience or ideas. In this kind of series the main character is relatively stable.

They don't really change--although the people around them and their circumstances do.

There are two main ICONic characters that work in this kind of series.

The PALLADIN is a main character who comes in to fix things. To solve the problems of the universe. Think Jack Reacher, Spenser, Mike Hammer, the Lone Ranger. They are on a quest for justice--to return balance to society--not on a quest to change themselves but the world around them.

The INVESTIGATOR is a main character whose interest and driving force is to solve a puzzle, thus restoring balance to the world. These are many of your amateur sleuths and PIs. Think Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple. They gain satisfaction from pitting their wits against the badguy and using their brains to figure things out.

In either of the above, the main characters' actions change the people around them more than themselves. Yes, they may gain physical scars, maybe even a few bad dreams along the way, but they won't change a lot from one book to the next.

In the second type of crime fiction series, the characters are malleable--in fact, they are undergoing a metamorphosis because their motivation to become involved in the crime is personal. There's something missing in themselves, a psychic wound if you will, and they're driven to fix themselves in order to fix the universe.

The two ICONic characters who are malleable and do change from book to book are:

The PENITENT who is searching for forgiveness, redemption, absolution for something that has gone wrong in their past. Think Dave Robicheaux, Harry Bosch ....any character "driven by demons."

The SEEKER may not need forgiveness as much as they need answers. Not specifically the logic that solves a crime but rather faith that there is something higher, something more out there and if they just strive hard enough, they may find it. Think Kathy Mallory, Fox Mulder...any character who begins as a cynic but really wants to believe in something larger than themselves or wants to believe in people rather than an abstract concept of justice.

Of course there are combinations and variations--that's what makes writing interesting! But it's interesting that you can easily name a dozen or more of the Palladins and Investigators, complete with long, long running series, than you can the Penitents or Seekers.

I think that's because when a character is on a quest to change themselves, there's nowhere to go once they achieve that. So they're often suitable for trilogies or shorter series or even standalones.

But for characters out to change the world around them and not themselves--well, lets face it, the world is never going to stop needing some improvement, is it? There will always be battles to be fought for justice, puzzles to be solved....

I read both types of books but prefer writing the Pentitent and Seeker types of characters. Lydia Fiore, the main character of my Berkley medical series is seeking redemption because she feels responsible for her mother's death when she was twelve.

Gina Freeman, a main secondary character, is seeking herself--she's put on so many facades to please others that she has no real idea who she really is, but working in the ER as a resident is like being placed in a crucible and she's slowly forging her true identity.

Amanda, the medical student lead character of my second book, WARNING SIGNS, is at heart a Palladin, always driven to do the right thing for her patients.

Nora, the main character in my next book (coming October 27!) URGENT CARE, is an interesting combination. She's a Palladin by nature but a Penitent by circumstance. URGENT CARE is her story of redemption.

Lucy Guardino, the main character of my new series, thinks she's a Palladin but at heart, she's truly a Seeker. She an FBI agent/soccer mom who works crimes against children while trying to protect her own family from danger—an impossible task, of course.

So, does this breakdown make sense to anyone else? What kind of Icon is your favorite to read? Which characters represent those Icons?

Do you want your characters to stay the same or grow and develop over time?

Thanks for sharing!

About CJ:
About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at


Jen Forbus said...

Oh I'm definitely a proponent of the characters that grow and change over time. I had to chuckle, though at your comment CJ about it being easier to name a long list of Palladins and Investigators over the Penitents and Seekers given your examples of the Penitent: Dave Robicheaux and Harry Bosch are probably in crime fiction two of the top series that haven't become stale - at least in my opinion. I find that I quickly become bored with the Palladin because he/she doesn't change. I find it unrealistic that a character isn't affected and changed by the events they are directly related to. I also think those series become predictable. We all know how they are going to end because the character doesn't change. Everyone grows and changes continuously through their lives. Even if, say, they're overcoming an addiction or PTSD and they conquer that (for all intents and purposes) there are still other events that mold and shape the characters - especially for folks always in the midst of crime and criminals.

When I think about the protagonists that I enjoy the most, I name off those that are constantly changing and searching: Walt Longmire, Elvis Cole, Ellie Hatcher, Kel McKelvy, Armand Gamache, Poke Rafferty, John Ceepak. But then again, I'm a fan of character, and rich character development will always trump a good plot for me!

Great question!!

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Jen! I agree, I tend to enjoy the characters who change over time as well...thanks for giving me a new list of them! A few of those I haven't read yet!

But think how many, many of the others, the types who don't change, that there are, reaching back to the "Golden Age" of mystery: Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason....hmmm, a lot of those would be classified as traditional mysteries now a days, maybe that's the key? This was the type of character readers wanted and expected and so that's what they got?

If so, I hope there's room opening up for a new way of doing things, lol!

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Good post, CJ. I'm thinking of long running series/authors -- decades' worth -- like P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Pronzini, Reginald Hill, etc. These authors have found the magical "it" that allows the reader to come back time and time again and not get bored. Then there are others (I won't name them) who I don't read anymore because they are boring, stale -- somehow they lost the magic. And I wonder what it is and the only thing I can come up with is perhaps the ones of which I've grown tired were based more on a gimmick or a trend somehow. The long standing ones are more real, solid, could exist outside the confines of the novel. I'll have to think about this more. :)

CJ Lyons said...

Hey, PK! When you figure out what that magic something-something is, be sure to let me know, lol!!!

Thanks for stopping by,

Shane Gericke said...

Everyone names the Palladins when they think about famous series, and the Palladins are great. But I like a hero (male or female) who gets some scars, whose views are changed, whose lives are moved in another direction from the weight of what they've just been through.

Great job naming these types, CJ.

CJ Lyons said...

I agree, Shane! Scars can be sexy (thinking of that Mel Gibson scene in one of the Lethal Weapons movies) and change creates more problems for our characters to involve themselves in....

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Brilliant post, CJ!

I too like characters who change and learn, but I am finding that tough to pull off. I get bored by characters who are always predictable (unless they are VERY charming). I think that is part of mh problem with most TV.

Unknown said...

Hi CJ!

Very cool ideas, I'd never thought about it this way. I have to chew on the Palladin vs. Investigator thing a bit, as I think very few Investigators are really in it for the puzzle, and most Palladins have to solve some sort of puzzle before the story is over. Perhaps the emphasis in story structure creates these two faces, but I'll have to chew on it some more!

One has the *illusion* of change in books like Travig McGee. Experiences that grow the character's capacities, or, as you say, limp them up with a scar or two. I think this counts as change though -- I think people learn more than they change. Changes in behavior aren't usually fundamental changes in nature, but someone acquiring a new skill or shedding an old blind spot. But, I'm not sure of any of this. You've given me something delightful to wrassle with, thanks!!!!!!