Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: On Series and Stand-Alone Novels


Writing novels is like having a series of intense love affairs that never end in marriage; therefore, I am well acquainted with breakups. I don’t mean characters breaking up with each other, but rather characters leaving me at the end of each book. No matter how often it happens, it’s always a jolt. For a year or two, we’ve been inseparable, me living through them, them drawing their very breath from me. As the story advances, the relationship intensifies to the point that I feel as if I’m living two lives, my own and my protagonist’s. Transitions from one life to the other are neither effortless nor seamless. I find it easier to enter into the story then to leave it. The characters’ problems seep into my dreams, and even in my waking life I sometimes see through their eyes.

And then suddenly it’s over: the story is finished. It will be a long goodbye: there are edits to come, months to go before our final parting. But once that last page is written, it’s the beginning of the end.

Sometimes partings come before the end of the book. Characters die. When they do, I go through a period of mourning that mimics the real thing. I don’t mind saying that I have wept for fictional characters. It comes with the territory. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

But when the book ends, I lose them all. The comfort is that they do not die but go out into the world, rather like adult children leaving home to fend and speak for themselves. It’s painful, but one grows used to it; and their departure leaves room for other characters to grow.

What happens, then, when the adult children come home?

I’ve never written a sequel. All my books have been stand-alones, with their own the cast of characters and settings. But my latest novel (A Dangerous Fiction, coming out with Viking in July 2013) is a departure: the pilot book of a series. That wasn’t my intention when I started  A Dangerous Fiction. I thought I was writing another stand-alone novel, this one a mystery about a New York literary agent named Jo Donovan who is stalked by a frustrated writer. I grew very fond of Jo. She’s probably the most complicated, flawed protagonist I’ve ever created; but she has qualities I particularly admire, including courage, loyalty, and resilience. The idea of a series came originally from my editor at Viking; but my reaction to her suggestion – a virtual tsunami of plot ideas for Jo – was a sure sign that the idea had been brewing just under the surface of my mind.

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2 I was happy at the prospect of continuing with Jo, and quite sure her story didn’t end where the book did. But I was nervous, too. Could I, I wondered, resurrect Jo and her friends after I’d set them free? I don’t jump from one book to the next. I wish I could, but my brain needs recharging when I finish a novel. Would Jo still be there when I came back to her?

Now that I’m immersed in the new book, I’m happy to report that she did. She’s a bit older and a bit wiser, but not too much wiser. The reason she came back, I think, is that I left her with so many unresolved issues, jagged spurs to the imagination.

It strikes me that this is true of all the great series characters, who change and grow from book to book: characters who respond to the experiences they undergo. They’ve all got something eating them that all the therapy in the world won’t resolve. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins comes out of the segregated South with a chip on his shoulder that never goes away; neither does his attraction to dangerous women. Mma Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith’s avatar of good sense and clear vision, is haunted by a violent marriage in her past. Thomas Harris’s Clarice Starling hears lambs crying in the night and always will. These characters evolve in response to the events of their stories, but they never shed their essential, unresolved selves.

Does this make sense? How do you feel, as readers and/or writers, about series characters? What draws you to them, and what turns you off?


A Dangerous Fiction is available for preorder in all the major online bookstores. Right now there’s a 30% discount on the hardcover edition at Amazon and B&N. Go on – you know you want to read it.

14 thoughts on “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: On Series and Stand-Alone Novels

  1. I’ve never written a series myself, though characters from one novel have appeared in the background of another. Hmm, series… There’s Outlander, of course. I think it helps if later books branch out into other characters. Or maybe not. I’d read a book that was solely Jamie and Claire 🙂
    There are series where the characters don’t really change, of course – thinking of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, for instance – and that can be comforting too.

    • Re. Sayers: not sure I’d put her in the same category of Christie (except that both subscribed to their era and class’s anti-Semitism). It seems to me that once Harriet Vane comes into his life, Lord Peter becomes a more serious person. His relationship with his family also seems to me to evolve. Or maybe I’m just prejudiced in her favor because she’s a much better writer than Christie.

      • No, I agree. Even while writing this I thought about Peter and Harriet’s relationship, and how it makes them differ and grow as people.
        On the other hand… Poirot too shows failings later on that he never revealed in the earlier books. And other characters change, maybe – like Hastings.

  2. A long series will only work if the characters grow throughout. If there is no change and the books end up being repetitions of themselves the series gets dull and I don’t bother reading more.

    The book I’m shopping was written as a stand alone but I was very surprised when the characters kept talking and let me know there was more to their story. It is now a trilogy (though each book could stand alone) and I realize it is much more complete than if I had left it at the first book. I’d never planned on writing a trilogy and I don’t plan on writing more. Still, if the characters are this persistent then who knows.

    • [[[A long series will only work if the characters grow throughout. If there is no change and the books end up being repetitions of themselves the series gets dull and I don’t bother reading more.]]]

      I totally agree. But see my note to Zan Marie. How do we explain the phenomenal success of writers like Christie and John D. McDonald? I loved Travis McGee and read just about all of the series, even though the stories were formulaic and the hero never changed. Are these writers scratching different itches?

  3. I agree, the characters in a series must have a core that the readers can depend on, but they must grow, too. I’ll add Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan to the list. Her flawed character will never leave you. Of course, Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER universe is another. It’s the balance between the core and growth that marks the best writers.

    • [[[It’s the balance between the core and growth that marks the best writers.]]]

      I want to agree–it’s certainly true for me as a reader. I think that lack of growth is the one drawback you see with series characters like Agatha Christie’s: Poirot and Miss Marple are exactly the same from book to book. They never age, and they’re never impacted by the things they experience. Yet those books sold millions are are still selling 50+ years later. How do you figure that?

      • Some readers like the main character to remain the same. I’m not a big mystery fan and to keep me reading a mystery series, the main character(s) must grow and develop layers. Julia Spencer Fleming is good at this with Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. That said, I can’t explain Agatha Christie’s popularity. Thank goodness, there’s a lot of books to choose from. It all comes down to taste in the end. For me, the balance has to be there. ; )

  4. this forum has been very interesting – with pros and cons on stagnation vs growth vs remaining the same … i am a multi genre writer – BOOTS AND PEARLS (non-fiction) – TWISTED LIVES WICKED LIES (fiction/contemp gothic mystery dysfunctional…) both of these are on Amazon in paper and eBook. SHADOW PEOPLE is a book of poetry (e e cummings or paul hofer narrative-street) with sketches – all very politico socio (currently only in eBook but maybe in summer as paper). FRANKIE AND FRIENDS is a series of ‘self contained’ books, series characters, Young Adult Mystery in the style of Roald Dahl – get a quick read on Amazon eBook. i am currently working on an adult genre which i toy with being a series as the characters themselves are all interesting as both an ensemble and as individuals (Jennifer Cruise has mastered that ‘continuous’ play within her non declared series yet characters overlap and take centre stage in each new book book so that one becomes familiar with them from different perspectives … all very cleverly done with sensuality, humour and wit.) as i enter the mid way of A TIME FOR GRACE (looking to end of March/April) i will see how the characters play themselves out and IF they can support outside interest as individuals. otherwise, this book will be its own and then it will be time to write anew – new tales with new characters. Erika WainDecker – E.WainDecker on –

  5. sorry it showed twice – was alerted it had failed first time round – enough – peter healy asked that question of how much pre-hisotry is good for sequel or series – i look forward to your comments – for me i want to be refreshed with a thread from time to time – characters need to grow from within themselves or through their interaction with other characters which in turn become story lines – connectives and story lines. what say you barbara? erika

    • Hi Erika, and welcome. Brit of some sort, I’m guessing? (spelling.) It’s nice to meet you and to hear about the wide variety of books you write. The nice thing about series is that if people read one and enjoy it, there’s an excellent chance they’ll buy the others; that, at least, is what I’m banking on. But not every character can carry a series, and I’m sure you’ll know by the end of your current book if your latest protagonist fits the bill.

  6. Great post and a timely one for me 🙂 I’m especially stirred by the comments regarding the emotional growth (or lack) of the MCs in a series.

    I read series mysteries, but — other than the first two installments of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries — have not read them in order. Maybe I’m an exception to the rule, but I read books as I find them in used bookstores and occasionally in places like B&N, and that means I’m rarely able to find the next book in the series I’m reading.

    When there are chronological elements within the series (the evolution of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon books, for example) I find myself confused about what I missed, wondering if I’m about to spoil something for myself if I later read an earlier book….

    So I’d be counted among fans of those books where the protagonist maybe changes over the course of the series, but doesn’t change so much that if I read them out of order I’m not lost or disappointed to have missed something crucial.

    Am I an exception? Or do most series readers take them in order?

    • [[[Am I an exception? Or do most series readers take them in order?]]]

      I don’t think you’re the exception. Most people chance on one book in a series, and if they like it they look for others. Only the most fanatical insist on reading in order. But that doesn’t, IMO, preclude an overarching story for the protagpnist, an arc that unfolds over a series of books. The mystery must be self-contained, but the events in the protagonist’s life can proceed from book to book. That’s the case with Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. I read the books out of order; so in one book he’s a widower, in the next he’s married, and in the next he’s just gotten engaged. I figured it out; readers do. In Dennis Lehane’s series books, the two detectives have an ongoing love affair that ends eventually as a result of their disagreement over a case. In that case, I think you do lose something by reading out of order, but not enough to matter.

Your thoughts?