L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)
Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. “ He clearly wasn’t writing a mystery series.
Kindle readers have suddenly discovered my Detective Jackson series, and many are reading my stories back to back. This can be a dangerous thing! When the details of previous stories are fresh in their minds, readers are so much more likely to catch inconsistencies. So far, none have contacted me to complain about anything serious, but other authors haven’t faired as well. For example, this forum post about backstory—by a ticked off reader—caught my attention.
She doesn’t bother to keep the non-main characters' backstories straight. The mayor of the small town is a female obstetrician in book one, and by book three or four has become a male car salesman. The ex-girlfriend originally has a mother with whom the protagonist has had dinner, but in a later book she is an orphan who recently lost her only sister.
This complaint is about a mega-bestselling author, and these inconsistencies obviously haven’t cost her much. But as an upcoming writer, I believe I can’t afford to make these kind of mistakes.
Sometime during the writing of Jackson book two (Secrets to Die For)—as I kept searching the manuscript of the first Jackson story looking for specific details—I realized I needed to start a file to track these things. So I created an Excel document and started copying/pasting details into character columns right after I typed them. Parents’ names, make of car, cell phone ring tone—anything I attached to a character I added to my character database. At least that’s how it works in theory.
I didn’t know I was writing a series when I penned the first Jackson story (The Sex Club), so I didn’t start this file from the beginning. I wish I had. A secondary character who appeared in book one came back in book three with a different hair color. I keep expecting more of these little quirks to surface, but I’m doing everything I can now to avoid it.
Readers also follow character development more closely than I realized. Several people have contacted me to ask: What happened to Kera’s ex-husband? He disappeared in book three. As the author, I let go of that particular conflict because I’d given the main characters a new family member to struggle with. But readers hadn’t forgotten and wanted to see a more thorough wrap-up.
That complaint pales in comparison to what readers have posted about lack of character development from other authors. Here’s a sample.
You would think, for example, that by book four the chief of police might pay a little more attention to a guy who has sussed out no less than three murders originally thought to be accidents/suicides (in a small town, in a less-than-six-month timeframe) but no, he continues to dismiss all opinions as fantasy. The protagonist has some kind of interest in three different women over the course of the series, but the relationships don't really develop either sexually or as friendships.
It’s not that readers want characters to be static. They want protagonists to grow and change, but in a natural and logical way that comes from the story. If the protagonist is exactly the same from book to book, no matter what happens to her, readers get bored and give up the series. So writers must achieve a fine balance and create subtle, organic change.
It’s good to know readers take our work seriously enough to care and comment. If our characters didn’t seem believable, these issues wouldn’t matter. As a writer, I want my characters to come across so realistic that everything about them makes sense to the reader. Even the little details I didn’t think would count. It’s challenging but worth it.
Readers: Do you notice series inconsistencies from book to book? How much do they bother you? What kind of character development do you like to see?
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series based in Eugene, OR, as well as two standalone thrillers. Her fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead, will be released in November. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, editing fiction manuscripts, and jumping out of airplanes.
Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win a copy of L.J.’s current Jackson mystery, Thrilled to Death.