Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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.


Paul said...

I don't read a lot of series novels (not sure why that is) but I did notice a howler in two of Philip Roth's novels. That really seemed unlikely since he's such a major name that should have gotten closer proofreading. In The Ghost Writer his protagonist visits an author who is also a professor at Athene College. Then in The Human Stain, set something like 30 years later, that same protagonist visits a different professor at that same college, only he calls it Athena College.

Sheila Connolly said...

Like we don't already obsess enough about our plots, without keeping lists of characters, places and backstory details! But it could be worse: I remember reading a mystery in which the protagonist's offspring had a baby--which changed gender within a couple of chapters in the book.

Of course, you can always be deliberately vague. My editor this week asked where my current protagonist came from, and I said, uh... I'd never specified, and all I can say is, East Coast, maybe? It's not important to the plot, but I guess readers want to know.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've learned that I can't rely on my porous memory to tell me what a minor character looked like in another book, or when certain events took place. There's an inconsistency between Disturbing the Dead and Broken Places that I didn't spot until after BP was published (and I spotted it when I was searching DTD for another reminder!), but so far not a single person has drawn it to my attention. This may simply be a sign that not many people have read both books! Maybe I should have a contest that requires people to read both books -- the winner gets a free copy of the next book. LOL

I've resorted to a notebook at last, in any case.

Barb Goffman said...

When I'm in a generous mood, I can easily let some things go. The mayor has a different outside job? There must have been an election. A character's hair color changed? That's what hairdressers are for. A baby's sex changed? ... I could come up with an explanation for that too, but,well, let's not dwell on that.

Elizabeth said...

I love series mysteries, but I have no patience to wait
for the next installment. So I normally browse the new mystery display and when a book catches my eye I check for back volumes. Then off to the catalog to reserve 1-whatever. I then read one after another. It is real easy to pick up the inconsistencies this way, and I have found them in EVERY author I
read. They are always minor and don't bother me.

And in case you wonder, I have a list of series with
me so can keep up with the new additions. But my method seems to make the waiting time feel less.

lil Gluckstern said...

At least you had the grace to wince a little. In one interview, Stuart Woods poohpoohed his fan's upset because he changed a baby's gender. I believe he said something to the effect of I make mistakes, live with it.
(And then encouraged us to buy, buy his books) I've never read him (or bought him) since.
I like that you respect your readers. Attitude is everything.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

I'm writing a mystery now and I'm doing exactly what you talk about: writing down for each character, as s/he comes on the scene, everything pertinent. It's easy to slip up on unimportant (?) bits, but those are just the ones that take the reader out of the story and get the disbelief unsuspended. Especially when the mistake is in a bit of the reader's area of expertise.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember any major stumbles, perhaps because I rarely read series books back to back. But it can bring you out of the moment, and I would think a good writer would keep track.

Kari Wainwright said...

I rarely read a series back to back, and my memory has become a sieve with bigger and bigger holes, so authors can probably get away with more with me as a reader.

As a writer, I think I'll start making notes, so when I'm published, I lessen the chances of making mistakes.

Diane said...

Sandra, if I remember, it was 2 years between publication of the two books, so if it was small, it wouldn't have been noticed. I certainly don't remember any inconsistancy. On the other hand, if it's a major one, I would notice. And as Barb Goffman said, some things are no big deal and possible. For example, hair color changes all the time. Someone being tall one time, short the next - not so much.

Margaret said...

I read a lot of series, but usually there's a year between books. So, generally I don't notice inconsistencies in minor details. The only thing that bothers me in series is when an ongoing character acts "out of character," so to speak.

Margaret Franson
P.S. Actually, now that I think of it, the thing that bothers me most in reading series is when the author decides to kill a major character, especially one that the reader has come to know and like. In most such cases, I have stopped reading the series. I think that the only author I made an exception was Dana Stabenow, picking up her series again a couple of books after the incident.Probably missed her protagonist too much.

Helen Kiker said...

Yes, inconsistencies do bother me. I remember one in a book that I read that had one only a couple pages apart. I think that your idea in keeping a file is great.

I also like to read series books in order. If I read them a year apart I am not very likely to notice errors but often I find an author who has already written a dozen books in a series &nd I will read them back to back. That is when the problems show up but it will not stop me from reading them.

Sandra Parshall said...

Inconsistencies a couple of pages apart are noticeable to most readers -- blue eyes on one page, brown eyes on the next? Did the character change contact lenses? And I wonder why the writer, the editor, the copyeditor, and anyone else who read the ms didn't pick up on something so glaring. But inconsistencies from book to book may, and do, go unnoticed except by readers who read all the books in quick succession. Some writers anguish over having made their protagonist an only child when a sibling would come in so handy later on -- but a surprise sibling can be supplied in a number of ways, all of which add to the drama of the story.

Unknown said...

I'm like some of the others in that when I find a new (to me) author, I try to find all their backlist and read everything. This can lead to finding some inconsistencies, but if they're not too bad, I can keep reading. I also don't like it when a charactor is killed off. What comes to mind are two times - Charlaine Harris killed off one in the Aurora Teagarden books and K.J. Erickson killed off one in her "Mars Barr" series. Charlaine has gone on to other things, but Ms. Erickson has not given us another book and I miss that series!

jenny milchman said...

I agree, LJ--can be quite a terwizzle. I'm reading a book that I'm really enjoying now and I noticed from one page to the next when the character's water turned into soda. In a series, I imagine this kind of thing gets far trickier. But in the end, I tend to forgive any such, and not just because I'd hope for the same latitude with my own errors. For me it's really about a great story, not the color shirt the detective tends to favor...or even the number dead.