Serial characters in your books – are they a good idea?

Serial characters, i.e. people we can get to know across a series of books, are popular. Look at Sherlock Holmes – I am not sure if he was the earliest example, but he first appeared in print in 1887 and went on to feature in four novels and fifty-six short stories, and countless adaptions since. Then there was Tarzan – his first adventure appeared in 1912 and he subsequently featured in twenty-five sequels by the original author, not to mention numerous other publications and formats down the years. Inspector Morse. The Famous Five. Paddington Bear. The Silver Brumby series. Harry Potter… and so on.

Now I don’t know about you, but I love a series of books featuring the same central character… particularly crime or mystery stories. I love the way the author can reveal the character’s background in a gradual – and more realistic – way across months or years of story time, rather than having to cram it all into one book (information overload?). And let’s face it – we don’t learn all there is to know about our work colleagues in one huge info-dump, do we? Who ever knew that the straight-laced and perhaps rather prim secretary on the fifth floor really likes heavy metal or Prog Rock, and has a collection of t-shirts to prove it which might rival your teenage son’s?  Okay, maybe that’s not a great example (although I do know someone who worked with someone a bit like that – I didn’t make it all up!) but I’m sure you know what I mean.

In my first published work, a collection of short science-fiction tales titled ‘The Journey and Other Short Stories‘, the titular story featured two characters who, when my full-length novel ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ is published later this year, readers might recognise as the parents of missing scientist Emma Morgan.  Although Tom and Eva Morgan’s appearance in ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ is not exactly a continuation of ‘The Journey’ (that being the original short story which inspired the novel), there was a moment when I did seriously consider linking them, and making ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ a sequel…

When I first decided that Inspector Ian Hammond in ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ was going to feature in my next novel, and quite possibly the one after that, and maybe even the next… well, the thought of being able to unfold his story gradually gave me a huge tingle of excitement! Now I could take my time with him. And he’s a nice guy – with a mystery in his past he badly wants to unravel… and I’m not going to say any more, for obvious reasons!

So yes, I think serial characters are a great idea. If you write them well (and I hope that is true of DI Hammond – you will have to be the judge of that when ‘The Methuselah Paradox’ is published later this year!) then you may be able to build up your readership and gain a nice following; who among us hasn’t finished book one in a series and, having enjoyed it, scanned Amazon for the next  – and been frustrated to discover that it isn’t due out for another few months/a year?  (Raises hand)   Or binged on a twenty-series book featuring a character we’ve come to know and care about? (Raises hand) As a writer, it is something we all want for our own books, isn’t it?  And I think it is fair to say that novels featuring serial characters feel like the norm with most police procedural/detective stories these days. I guess it is the same desire for a familiar face and a long story arc which keeps viewers watching a soap opera week after week. What will happen next? We want to know!  The different plot details of each story compliment the slower story arc of the main character(s) perfectly – a never-ending feast of intrigue and discovery.

Talking of long story arcs, that in itself can be a challenge. Do you work it all out before you start the first book, which could be boring for you as a writer, or do you discover your character as you go along, keeping one book ahead of your readers in the discovery stakes? I favour the second method, although I do usually have a rough idea of where I want my character to end up – assuming he or she doesn’t surprise me, of course…

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Thanks for reading, and do tell me about your serial characters by commenting below!

Elaine Jackson


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EJ Jackson

I write, therefore I am! Love film, theatre,TV and books: science-fiction, thrillers/crime and mystery. Geek, wife and mum, sister. Created the official Appreciation Society for 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', Author of 'The Methuselah Paradox' and new comic book series 'Minding Mama' (illustrated by Dan Schaefer). Author of 'The Journey & Other Short Stories' (August 2014) , 'The Methuselah Paradox' (August 2016) , 'New Leaf' (2017) , 'Minding Mama & Other Short Stories (Feb 2019)and comic book series 'Minding Mama' (tbc). Lots more in the pipeline! "Imagination is the highest kite one can fly." - Lauren Bacall

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