The Perils of Pauline and Company

Everybody loves characters in a series — well, almost everybody. More often than not, the series characters in mysteries and other genre fiction follow this general pattern toward a boring end.

First book — sharp, original, quirky or otherwise eccentric characters clashing and uniting in compelling, and sometimes, realistic ways.

Second book — the relationship between the characters evolves. The eccentric/original aspects soften or become repetitive character tics.

Third book — an artificial crisis must be posed to reignite the passion or conflict between the principal characters.

Fourth book — soap opera time…

There are exceptions. Donna Leon manages to keep me going back to dine and solve crimes in Venice with Inspector Brunetti. I mentioned dining first because with this particular series of procedurals, the passage from one meal to the next is as critical as moving between suspects and witnesses. I wish I could down a prosecco with my lunch in the company of Guido Brunetti.

Because I don’t want to name names on my bookshelf, I’ll take my examples from TV where the same principle holds and the pace of character development is accelerated. The rough and incompatible edges of characters in BONES (loosely based on the Kathy Reichs’ books) and CASTLE are warn away until opposites attract, overcome conflicts and become committed couples — couples that require BIG external conflicts to keep the drama and the banter going.

Like many mystery readers, I’ve fallen “in love” with some serial characters and followed them in books for years — even as my devotion waned. That’s why a comment the British mystery writer Russell James made at a mystery conference I attended a while back stays with me. He said that the main character in each of his books was experiencing the biggest and most interesting event of their lives. After that book, they weren’t as interesting. So he’d take a minor character from one book and turn that person into the lead character in the next, crafting a story about that second character’s biggest and most compelling life event.

I thought it was a brilliant idea and it certainly helps authors avoid the Perils of Pauline!


(FYI… if you have yet to discover Russell James give ‘Painting in the Dark’ a try. It was the book that introduced me to this talented writer.)


  1. Agreed. It seems as time moves on the stakes get bigger and bigger. Doesn’t matter what medium you tell the story in.

    Might be why I don’t pay much attention to series work most of the time. Granted I do have a couple I am sticking with but for the most part, many of the far reaching stories and series I spend time with tell something new in a larger world.

    Case in point Terry Pratchett’s discworld series. The series is about the world and the characters in it and not so much about these same characters from book to book.

  2. Robert Wilson’s Blindman of Seville is exactly like that! The first book is mind bogglingly good. Sadly the subsequent books following the main character don’t even come close. I still read them, but….

    Will give Russell James a try. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      The character deterioration is sometimes very quick. I remember reading a brilliant mystery set in Umbria and being totally thrilled about another Italian detective series, but the second book was terrible. The edge was gone — from the character AND the writing!

  3. p.s. It seems he only publishes in amazon UK., and amazon UK will let me login but won’t let me buy. 🙁 I’ll try creating a brand new account there.

  4. For someone whose WIP contains elements of mystery, I need to read more mystery to get a better sense of what’s out there. I don’t think I’ll end up being a full-fledged mystery writer, but it still a good idea to read authors to see if that might where I might end up someday. Still feeling the territory out and such and have decided it’s better to do that so I can develop my writing chops 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      A wise adviser of mine draws a distinction between mysteries and mystery novels (or novels with a mystery element). My WIP is in the second category. Reading books that fall under these headings (or skirt both) is a great idea. Remember that in the mystery genre there are subsets: police proceedurals, who-dunnits, cozies, Noir, private detective Noir, and many more. I’ll read ’em all with pleasure if they are well written. Lots of drivel out there so be prepared to throw up your hands (and your Kindle) and move on to the next one on a regular basis.