5 Secrets to Creating a Compelling Series Character

Award-winning author Barry Lancet shares five secrets he’s learned in his writing career about developing a character who can carry a series of novels.
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When I began my first book starring Jim Brodie, my goal was simply to write the best book I could. I didn’t have visions of a series. Then, as I polished the final draft, readying the manuscript for submission to an agent, new story ideas for Brodie began to pop into my head.

I took a step back to consider the possibility of making Brodie a series character, realizing that a lot depended on how Japantown was received. But I decided to give myself a little more breathing room just in case.

This guest post is by Barry Lancet. Lancet is the author of the award-winning international suspense series featuring Jim Brodie. The latest entry is THE SPY ACROSS THE TABLE (Simon & Schuster), which sends Brodie careening from Washington, D.C. and San Francisco to Japan, South Korea, the DMZ, and the Chinese-North Korean border, in a story that predates recent headlines. In one of the first advance reviews, Publishers Weekly said that “Lancet keeps the suspense high through the exciting climax.” Photo by Ben Simmons.

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It’s vital to point out that even as I contemplated the idea of a series, I held nothing back from Japantown. Why? Because to make the team you have to bring your best game. That’s what I did and the book sold to Simon & Schuster and would go on to make a number of “best-of” lists and win the Barry Award for Best First Mystery.

By the time Japantown reached print, I was immersed in writing my second novel, Tokyo Kill, again with Brodie at the helm of another contemporary tale that, this time, veered back to the days of World War II. Why another Brodie book instead of a standalone? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me tell you what I did to create a little “breathing room.”

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Over the years, I’d gleaned from interviews with other authors that the planning of their series characters followed one of two paths: either they allowed themselves flexibility for the future, or they moved hastily, and inadvertently penned themselves in. With this information at hand I made the following moves, and offer them here for you to think about:

1. Keep the backstory detailed but open-ended enough to give yourself maneuverability.

For example, Brodie is an American born in Japan to American parents, an art dealer with a struggling antiques shop in San Francisco, and half-owner of a security firm built by his father in Tokyo. He’s also the father of a six-year-old girl. All of this gives me plenty to work with. He has the need to travel so I’m not pinned down with my setting. Two careers provide a multitude of opportunities for trouble; and he’s a single parent, which offers the chance for emotional exploration. Each of my books takes advantage of Brodie’s backstory.

2. But you shouldn’t give too many extended details about the backstory.

Backstory, by nature, slows a story down, so for that reason alone it should be parsed out in drips over time. And when you do, make sure not to pin yourself down too much.

Which leads us to the next point: What should a series character be? Much will be specific to the setting, goals, and genre you choose, but here are three major aspects to consider:

3. Make your character attractive to both male and female readers.

(Unless you’re working in a genre that zeroes in on one over the other.)

4. Avoid common character clichés.

If your hero is a spy, steer away from the melancholy, burned-out agent, or the slick, overly smooth operator. If your protagonist is a private investigator, avoid the recovering alcoholic trope (it’s been done hundreds of times), or the lady’s man with an ex-wife or two.

That said, no rule or suggestion is all-inclusive, nor goes unbroken. If you must approach a stereotype, do so with the freshest point of view you can muster. Jeffery Deaver brilliantly turned the “wounded cop/private investigator” trope on its head in The Bone Collector by making his hero a nearly complete paraplegic, mentally fit but able to move little more than a finger. Michael Connelly handled the ex-wife syndrome with humor and pathos in the Lincoln Lawyer.

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5. I’ve saved the most intriguing item for last:

You don’t have to stray too far from home to find at least a portion of your protagonist’s personality, and here’s why.

Over the last five years, I’ve met and listened to any number of bestselling authors. What I’ve noticed (sometimes despite claims to the contrary) is that their series characters often exhibit a number of personality traits they themselves possess.

I’ve seen this too many times to ignore. The character may drive a different car, wear different clothes, and live in a different state, but, whether consciously or unconsciously (as in my case too), underlying similarities often emerge. At the same time, I saw the upside. These similarities give the authors a solid grasp on their characters, and their character a solid anchor in reality.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to bend over backwards to divorce yourself entirely from your character. Which is another way of saying you don’t need to be nervous about borrowing a part of yourself for your character.

The five factors above helped bring Jim Brodie to the printed and digital page. And how did that turn out?

After I finished Japantown, I sent it out to agents. Soon thereafter, I was fortunate enough to land my top choice in a list of ten (Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media Agency). Japantown was preempted by Simon & Schuster and optioned for TV for two years by J.J. Abrams (the series is now under consideration with a new producer).

When the dust settled, a contract for two books landed on my desk, soon to be followed by a second contract for two more books. The additional three books were contingent on Brodie putting in an appearance as the main character. His name appeared prominently in the contract, and he is the focus of each book. Brodie’s most far-flung adventure to date is his most recent, The Spy Across the Table, where his backstory has been fleshed out a tad more to include a choice secret.

In more ways than one, Jim Brodie has taken on a life of his own.

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