Friday, February 4, 2022

How to write a series character* - by Josh Stallings

 * and other things I wish I knew.

Q:How do you handle the passage of time and the aging of characters in your series?

As a reader my favorite series are ones that pick up relatively close to where the last book ended. I also like books that carry an emotional continuity from experiences in the last book into the next book. In Charlie Huston’s Henry Thompson novels (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things, A Dangerous Man) he starts with a Hitchcockian everyman who is mistaken for a thief. His journey is rough and violent and by the end of the trilogy Hank is a hardened killer and a dangerous man. These are hardboiled novels that are a study of what it takes to turn a person into a hard boiled character. No one starts out like Richard Stark's Parker, although most often these characters are dropped fully formed into their novels. What Huston did was show you how a cruel and violent world created them.  

My Moses McGuire books (Beautiful Naked & Dead, Out There Bad, One More Body) are a hardboiled exploration of sex as commerce in America. Each book takes you deeper into the skin trade, starting with strip clubs and legal Nevada brothels and ending with a girl grabbed off the streets of LA and trafficked into prostitution. This wasn’t originally my plan, I followed the research as I wrote. The people I interviewed led me to search out news articles and that led me to talk to more people in the sex trade. The more I learned, the angrier I got, and the angrier the books got. Moses starts out thinking he’s a knight in dented armor. Throughout the books he discovers he is part of the problem. He grows in slow fits and starts. He also accumulates scars physical and emotional. I have been asked to write more Moses books, but I just haven’t the heart to put him or me through the anger and pain it would take.


The nature of hardboiled is grab your protagonist by the neck and beat the hell out of them for as long as they can take it. So if you choose to track them with emotional and physical continuity book to book, they won’t survive too many volumes. Charlie Huston found a smart cheat with his Joe Pitt Case Books. These are hardboiled detective books set in a New York full of vampires. Having a vampire protagonist allowed Huston to beat the heck out of Joe Pitt book after book, knowing it’s next to impossible to kill the undead.          

Tana French with her Dublin Murder Squad books has found an intriguing highbred that delivers the familiarity of a series and allows the emotional arc of a stand alone. Instead of following one main detective, each book takes a different member of the squad and gives them their own novel. So brilliant, wish I’d thought of it.

In the Easy Rawlins series Walter Mosley not only tells the story of one man’s life he also tracks the history of the black experience in Los Angeles. Starting with Devil in a Blue Dress set in 1948, he follows it up with A Red Death set in 1953, the next is set in 1956, then he jumps to 1961. Some of the later books take up just after the last ended. These time jumps between novels seem to be dictated by both wanting to show certain periods in LA history and to explore Easy’s growth over a longer time span. This unconventional timeline allows the series to play out like a saga, while book to book it reads like a domestic mystery series. We follow Easy’s personal life, watch his adopted children grow up, relationships flourish and fall apart.

One of the great things about reading a series — regardless of the form — is that feeling of catching up with old friends. You generally know what you’re getting into from the start. You know the players and roughly the turf. I would love to write a long running series but I’m not sure it’s in my wheelhouse. Then again I’m surprised that the guy who wrote Moses McGuire, also wrote Young Americans, a sexually fluid disco heist romp, and then Tricky, a heartfelt police drama that is about neurodiversity and the possibility of redemption. My currant MS will definitely be the start of a long running series… or the first in a trilogy… or maybe a stand alone… One of those, for sure. Stay tuned and we’ll discover together what the hell is going on in the mind of Josh Stallings.

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