The Key to a Good Series is Excellent Characters

  1. The jalopy was occupied by Chet Morton, the Hardys’ portly chum, and Tony Prito, their olive-skinned companion.
  2. He had learned patience growing up in a tenement, where most days he was chased by a group of boys chanting “Meyer Meyer, Jew on fire.”
  3. A hairy economist who padded up and down the beach all day before retiring to his boat, the John Maynard Keynes.

If you recognize the lines above – which are, I confess, paraphrases rather than actual quotes – you are or once were a fan of the Hardy Boys, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, or John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

GIVEAWAY: Steve is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Burrowswrite won.)



Guest column by Steve Ulfelder, amateur race driver and co-owner
of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds race cars. His first novel,
PURGATORY CHASM, was nominated for an MWA Edgar Award in the
Best First Novel category, and was named Best First Mystery of 2011
by RT Book Reviews. His second novel, THE WHOLE LIE (May 2012,
Minotaur), earned a starred review at
Publishers Weekly and was
named an RT Book Reviews Top Pick. Visit Steve online at



I’m a series junkie. In addition to those noted above, faves include Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Parker, Fletch, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch … I could go on. And one of the things that draws me to series is that feeling of slipping into a familiar world – a place with its own logic and rules and history.

And characters.

If you’re predisposed to enjoy a series, nothing envelops you in its self-contained universe like the brief descriptions of ongoing characters. McBain may have been the best at this (and may have had to become the best, because his 87th Precinct included such a large and rotating cast). Detective Steve Carella always had the build of a shortstop. Meyer Meyer was always prematurely bald and supremely patient. Cotton Hawes always had that surprising tuft of white hair. And so on.

I’m about to release the second Conway Sax novel, The Whole Lie – but for me, it’s the fourth book in the series. (A pair of unpublished efforts helped me develop Conway and Company.) I think I’m starting to get the hang of these thumbnail paragraphs. The idea is to offer new readers a quick description of somebody they’ll be seeing a lot of, and to do so without bogging down returning readers.

(How to create an effective synopsis for your novel or memoir.)

So Charlene Bollinger, Conway’s longtime girlfriend, is this: Bleached blonde, no nonsense, a long-clean junkie who bootstrapped her way to a powerhouse business career.

Sidekick Randall Swale: A young combat veteran who once kicked a trashcan lid hiding a bomb that blew his foot over a wall in a godforsaken village. He’s utterly without self-pity, but hangs around Conway when he ought to be getting on with his promising life.

And then there’s Sophie Bollinger, Charlene’s 13-year-old daughter. Blessed with jaw-dropping intelligence that was throttled by a tough early childhood, she thinks Conway hung the moon because he’s the first good man who ever touched her life.

If I’m fortunate and the series progresses, these quickie descriptions may someday bring readers that feeling I love myself: the comfortable (yet tense! What’s going to happen this time around?) escape into a world populated by characters we care about as if they lived next door.

GIVEAWAY: Steve is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Burrowswrite won.)


Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

21 thoughts on “The Key to a Good Series is Excellent Characters

  1. vickielb

    I think I see a huge crush coming on for Sophie – she’s just the right age to fall hard. If not this time, then in your next installment for sure. Let her down easy – it will be her first love!

  2. mshah1

    My first obsession was with Nancy Drew and then Ellery Queen. Love ’em and they’re still with me. I agree with schip about being transported.

  3. schwip

    The true sign of a good novel is if you forget where you are and what is going on around you because you are so engrossed in the world of your characters.

  4. MittensMorgul

    I’m rereading my newly-autographed copy of Purgatory Chasm, and the character descriptions above made me smile. They perfectly encapsulate each character. I already feel like I know them, even though I don’t have years and years worth of them to fall back on. I can only imagine that feeling of old friendship growing as the series continues. Thanks for sharing!

  5. tlaulusa

    I’m working my way through JD Robb’s Eve Dallas series right now. I didn’t start in order, but I’m going back to the beginning and reading the rest that way. I’ll have to look for yours. Good luck with your continuing writing.

  6. writergale

    you raised and solved a challenging point – the ‘thumbnail paragraphs’ for new and returning fans.
    Add to that some ‘fresh writing’ and you could quickly get a whole new character if you’re not looking both ways before you step off the curb 🙂
    What I appreciated most was your honesty in facing this.

    (Kudos to you- it’s something I’m facing now)

  7. TechnoMistress

    Very true. I’m a series junkie myself, and one of my favourites is J.D. Robb’s “Death” series. She does a wonderful job of painting a picture of the reccuring characters in your mind – it’s easy to “see” each of them as you’re reading.

  8. ashluvgd

    I haven’t read the first book yet, but your quick description of characters makes me want to go read the first one asap. Then read the second when I can after

  9. j. marechal

    My fave series includes Anne Lamott’s ‘Rosie’, Reginald Hill’s Daziel & Pascoe run, and Charlie Huston’s ‘Caught Stealing’ and its companions. And the “Moonlight Mile’ installment in the Angie & Patrick series by Dennis Lehane is nothing but wonderbar. But my all time best is the Arkady Renko thrillers from Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published in 1981; sometimes the wait is long, sigh; but I never want this series to end. The publication of a new installment gives me shivers.

  10. Krimzonrain

    I’m a series junkie and don’t think I’ll overcome the obsession, not that I would want to. I think the connection you can have with the characters is better developed when you can spread that relationship out over several books rather than just a one shot deal. I also like knowing that with any new book in a series, I might pick up a new fact about their back story which makes it much more interesting.

  11. Laura S.

    I am writing a series of stories that one day (I hope) will become a series of published books. The description of my charecters is one part of the process that I have been working on. I feel sometimes that I go to descriptive. Now when I am writing I try to bring interesting and direct ways of doing so. Your description of Conways girlfriend and sidekick are memorable and bring a full picture of the charecter for me. That is what I hope to bring to my stories. Thanks for the interesting article.

  12. waynepyle

    I really love how ACTIVE your descriptions of your characters are.

    “a long-clean junkie who BOOTSTRAPPED her way to a powerhouse business career”
    “once KICKED a trashcan lid hiding a bomb that BLEW his foot over a wall in a godforsaken village”
    “JAW-DROPPING intelligence that was THROTTLED by a tough early childhood” (emphases mine)

    The way you use action for description just seems to grab the reader in a much more striking way than simply writing, “He was a lean, dirty blond, with bright, hazel eyes and a physique that was almost Fabio, but not quite.” Thanks for sharing this with us, Steve. I’d love to win a copy of your new book!

    I’ll be the forty-something, hair-losing (but not wanting to try Rogaine…yet) community college professor-type who is power walking his way through a bewildering mid-life crisis and waiting for that chance to have a comfortable (yet tense! What’s going to happen this time around?) escape into a world populated by characters he cares about as if they lived next door.

  13. B.P.Elkins

    What a great way to list character attributes. When i write my outline i always get stuck at physical description, but I see what you did here was leave the physical description short and left more for the personality. I’m writing a new book, looks like I’ll be changing around the outline.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.