Character Development in Serial Novels

I wrote a bit late last year about Tim Dorsey's series of novels in this Random Thursday post. At that time, I had read three of the installments and was starting on the fourth. As of earlier this evening, I've now finished a dozen, and have just downloaded the 13th (and last) in the series.

In the beginning, I inadvertently skipped around in the series before I realized that Dorsey had published a recommended reading order; even though the series has a linear story, he intended the books to be read in order of publication date. Fortunately, my oversight probably resulted in his selling more books than he might otherwise have.

The reason is simple: had I begun with the first book in the series, Florida Roadkill, I likely would never have sought out subsequent offerings, because I didn't like the main character. Dorsey's portrayal of Serge Storms, an amoral, borderline psychopathic, hyperactive Florida history addict and budding serial killer evoked little sympathy or affinity in this reader...and small wonder, you're thinking. What's to love about a serial killer? (Disregard Dexter for a moment.)

But here's an interesting thing, and a lesson for authors. Whether intentionally or by accident, Dorsey evolved Serge's personality into someone who - if not exactly lovable or sympathetic - is multi-faceted enough to engender something akin to goodwill on the part of readers who are patient enough to get to know him.

For example, in the introductory novel, Serge wasn't much of a drinker, but he did indulge in the occasional beer. In subsequent books, he was a teetotaler, which made him more interesting when contrasted with the completely hopeless addicts who inexplicably became his sidekicks and companions. In the beginning, he was humorless and ruthless; later, his ruthlessness was still evident, but it was tempered with a kind of vigilante justice that he directed toward those who preyed on the most helpless segments of society. (OK, there was still the occasional random, overly violent murder, but nobody's perfect.) Serge also became more introspective, exploring his own motivations along with the readers, although this exercise was generally more entertaining than enlightening.

Dorsey did something else with his main character that offers a good lesson for authors: he never completely described his physical characteristics. Medium height, athletically thin, prematurely gray, with piercing eyes. That's pretty much all there is to know about Serge's appearance throughout the series. This approach allows the reader to modify the character to his or her own notions, for better or worse. Sometimes less really is more.

The Serge Series (my own title; Dorsey has never, to my knowledge, put a label on it) won't be to everyone's taste. But as a primer on how to develop a recurring character, it's downright fascinating.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric published on February 15, 2011 10:14 PM.

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