I did an interview today with the fabulous Joanna Penn for her podcast, The Creative Penn (it’ll go live in a few weeks, I’ll keep you posted), and she asked one of my favorite questions, because it lets me dig into something that writers are often curious about.
Joanna led with (and yes, this is a paraphrase): You say that the story is about how the plot forces the protagonist to change internally – they enter with a longstanding desire and a misbelief that’s kept them from fulfilling it, and then the plot forces them to go after that thing they want, but to have a chance at getting it, they have to change internally. That is, they have to finally recognize their misbelief for what it is: wrong. But what if you’re writing a series – say a detective series – and your main character, the detective, doesn’t change? At least not that much. Plus, the novel isn’t about her or him, but about the crime that is solved. What then? Do you really need to dig into their past before you start writing?”
The answer is yes! (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)
Because whether or not the detective changes (and often they do in ways large and small) they will always have a defining belief -- one that drives them, gives them insight, and that they sometimes wrestle with. For instance, Adam Dalgliesh, PD James’ detective, is defined by his wife's death.
I know, it’s a staple of the genre, right? I grew up on those old TV shows where the lead detective is driven because his wife and child died tragically -- something that often he feels responsible for. In Dalgliesh’s case he lost his wife in childbirth, and it’s defined him ever since. He’s affected by the emotional residue of her death, and what she meant to him, from the first novel until the last in the series, The Private Patient, when he finally remarries.
Similarly, Elizabeth George's Inspector Thomas Lynley is defined throughout the series by his decision to break from his claustrophobic aristocratic past – something he struggles with, and that can’t help but affect how he sees the world. In later books his outlook and demeanor change dramatically once his beloved wife dies (note to fictional wives: think twice before you marry that dashing detective, just saying).
It was that kind of character change that drew George to writing a detective series in the first place: “I chose to do a series because as a reader I love series, I always have ever since I was a child, but only series where the characters move and change through time. That's what I wanted to do.” And that’s exactly what she did.
But what about a series in which the protagonist doesn’t change? Can’t we just forget all this messy digging into their past and leap into the first juicy crime?
Even with those detectives who won’t change an iota – think: Jack Reacher, Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple -- you still need to know what the past has revealed to them about how the world works. Why? Because that’s what creates the internal lens through which they’re going to analyze the fate of all those dead bodies the world will continue tossing at them (and by the world, I mean you).
After all, that’s what detectives do -- they try to figure out who did what and, even more riveting, why. And their analysis is based on the same thing we all base our analysis on: what our past experience has taught us to look for, and diving deeper, what those things we uncover might reveal about the world around us.
That’s why my answer to Joanna was such an unqualified: Yes! Even if you’re writing a series you still need to dive deeply into your detective’s story specific past -- how else will you know what experience has already taught her about what makes people tick?
In fact that’s especially true if you’re writing a series – because the past you create for her in that first book will have to be just as true in the last book. The last thing you want to do is throw something in because it’s cool in the moment, and then for the rest of the series you’re stuck with your protagonist having a psychic uncle from Mars who communicates by carving runes into rutabagas at the corner bodega.
The crucial question – for any character – is always: What makes her tick? Why? That is the inside intel that we come to story for.
After all, as the newsreel producer said in Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.”