Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Larger Than Life and Likes It That Way

By Sophie

Would you spin off any of your characters? Who and why?

When I'm writing about Stella Hardesty, the heroine of A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, she takes over my head - she is a zesty, demanding, provocative character so it's not too hard for her to do - and the other characters sort of mill about in her orbit. It would probably be fair to say she is larger than life. As an experiment, in the second book I gave her a nemesis with what I thought was an equally expansive personality, but Stella drove right over her and backed up and did it again. (Had to fix that in rewrites.)

I don't really think it would be fair to take someone out of that milieu and expect them to carry an entire series. Which is not to say that those characters are weak or flat or's just that they were molded from the clay of a world that Stella already inhabited, so they exist in the context of their relationship with Stella.

I know from experience that this is not always the case. I've written several other series (one - the Young Adult - will be out next year; the rest are safely tucked away where they can't get out) in which the protagonists' arcs are much more contained. They may be more internal. They may be focused on a single external foe. They may simply be people whose every thought and emotion don't spill over onto the page like a failed science project. In any case, in these series it would be possible to pluck a different character out of the stew, wind her up, and send her toddling off in a new direction.

In the Stella series, however, there is a related issue, one that is probably present any time a writer continues a series into subsequent books: which characters in the story world should have a greater role in the new book, and which should recede?

Often, this is dictated by reader response or editorial guidance. For instance, in A BAD DAY FOR SORRY I introduce pesky neighbor kid Todd Groffe, a thirteen-year-old terror who didn't do much in the first book other than annoy Stella. My test readers loved him though, so he gets a bigger role in the second and third books.

Conversely, characters who've already come to the resolution of their story arc are generally not useful in subsequent books, except to walk on and wave a fond hello, a little gift for readers of prior books. If you give someone the job of their dreams or the love of their lives or vengeance, readers are satisfied with them and they are free to go live happily ever after - offscreen. They are not welcome in new books because they no longer have a job to do. They're like the guest who you send off after a dinner party, waving a fond au revoir from the front porch, who return ten minutes later for a forgotten coat only to find you in your sweats eating the last of the fondue with your fingers.

That's why, if you do intend to have continuing characters, it's wise to set them up with a series objective. This is an arc that will span several books, one which is not resolved at the end of each story. In Todd's case, just being thirteen works, because in each book he's dealing with an issue related to growing up (rebellion, first love, siblings). In the case of Chrissy, she's barely emancipated from her life as a victim at the end of book one, and it will take her several more stories to fully develop into the woman she's meant to be.

Goat's an easy case; he stays the hot and hunky Sheriff throughout book one, and it's the romance that develops over time. A reviewer pointed out that, compared to the women in the book, he's less well developed. I would say that's fair, and probably due to the fact that I spent most of my Goat-writing time mooning over him (oh yes it's possible to have a crush on characters of your own creation) and now it would be a suitable challenge for me to give him more depth.

Hmm. I've been staring at that last paragraph for ten minutes or so, trying to figure out a clever wrapup to this post. I got nothin'. So instead I think I'll mention that I just signed on for two more books in the series. Watch out, world, Stella just won't back down!

Photo thanks to Flickr contributors Poppins, Irargerich, Jesse Haley, and lalawdog58


Jen Forbus said...

First of all: WOO HOO!! More Stella. That's music to my ears..or maybe in this case, it's candy for my eyes? Hmmm...o.k, too much thought for this early in the morning.

But...I also want to mention that you shouldn't rule anything out. My first thoughts for Stella and crew (about a spin off) would be Goat. But I was thinking more about backing up and how he got to where he is now....exploits that happened before the Stella days. Someone else who jumped out at me would be BJ.

I'm thinking back to Crais's beginning of the Elvis series, Parker's beginning of the Spenser series. Neither Joe nor Hawk was as significant then as they grew to be later in the series. And they both grew to be worthy of "spin offs." Of course Parker didn't spin off Hawk...but Hollywood did!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh Jen you are making me smile this morning. Yup, that BJ is an example of a "throwaway" character who later came back and found a place in other books just 'cause I liked him. Only this is book 3 I described him as compact - kinda short - and then was at a reading somewhere and I realized to my surprise that he is actually 6'3" in SORRY and 240 pounds. Um, copy edits...

Ah yes, Hollywood. For sure.

Jen Forbus said...

Oh that's wonderful! I like BJ, too. I'll be tickled to see him again!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

You never know what those pesky characters will do in subsequent books. I had a guy in SMOKE who was kind of minor. He got a lovely arc in KNIVES and now he's trying to take over LIES. I planned to kill him, so I understand that he's fighting hard for his life.

CJ Lyons said...

Sophie, congrats! Can't wait to see more of Stella and company!!!

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey becky, i'd be scared if i was that're clearly the boss of him :)

thanks cj! I'm pretty excited.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

That guest-returning-for-coat-and-catching-you-in-your-sweats thing? Happened to me. Except I was wearing less than sweats. Yikes.

Congrats on more Stellaaaaa! (Sorry, have Marlon Brando on the brain.) Remember, you promised to make me a cheap slutty stripper in one of the books! My parents will be SO proud.