Fixed vs. Mutable Characters in Series
As a reader, I love series. When I get to revisit beloved characters over and over, each time I see them it feels as if I’m greeting old friends (or enemies!) We all have some friends who stay pretty much like we remember. It’s never a big shock when we reunite with them. They might have a small new wrinkle or be carrying an extra pound or two, but basically, when we meet up with them in the diner, we spot them right away. And then there are those other friends who are dyeing their hair, or changing out their wardrobe, or redecorating their house every two years. It’s tempting to tell them to wear a carnation to your rendezvous so you can actually figure out who they are.
Fictional series can be like that too: series where characters evolve, and series where the character is constant and only the situations they face vary.
Each approach has its own pros and cons. Let’s take Scooby-Doo! as an example of a series where the characters are static. We always know that Velma will lose her glasses, Fred will pontificate, and Shaggy and Scooby will blunder into the most dangerous part of the haunted house while trying to avoid it, or maybe while looking for something to eat. (I don’t really have a good grasp on Daphne, never have. She’s an enigma.) These characters don’t evolve—those meddling kids simply show up in new-ish situations from episode to episode.
Many TV shows feature basically fixed characters that they can drop into a variety of scenarios each week. Police procedurals often fall into this category, as do certain sitcoms. Sometimes there’s a thin character arc behind the season, but often it’s not really necessary. Viewers tune in primarily to see how their beloved characters will act in a new situation. The advantage to writing a series where character is constant while the plot and setting change is that you could potentially go on and on. Send them to the moon. Have an earthquake shake their city. Let their landlord evict them. Any situation you can think of is fair game as new adventure for your notable character, and you can keep spinning yarns until you (or your readership) is bored with the star of the series, and then retire them. Series like this are easy to access for readers, because they can wade in and out of the series at their leisure without following a linear progression.
Real people, however, tend to shift and change. Anyone who grew up in the 70’s will remember rushing home to see what would happen next on Little House on the Prairie. Now there’s a show where child characters were growing up as the show evolved, so it was necessary that while new situations and challenges were showcased each week, the characters themselves changed too, often in big and irreversible ways. (I was just talking about this to my girlfriends…remember when Mary went blind? *Gasp!*) Because the show was loosely biographical, it made sense that characters would need to evolve.
Stories where the main characters grow are all about the character arc—the progression of the character. While mutable characters will have an arc over the course of a single story, character arcs that stretch over entire series are particularly compelling. These are the types of series that engage the readership the most. They want to know what happens next—will that character deal with that damn issue that’s been dogging them—because it’s an awful lot like real life, albeit real life that might eventually come to a satisfying end where everything makes sense.
jump the shark” moment has occurred. (This will complete my triumvirate of 70’s American TV show references with the episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie literally waterskied over a shark.)
At that juncture, where the character has evolved past the point of logic, the audience will say, “That’s where the series started to suck.” And then nobody’s happy.
To make things even more difficult for the writer, there’s also a risk of changing…but not quite enough. Evolving-character stories require definitive and satisfying change. I would be surprised if Stephanie Plum ever picked Ranger or Joe Morelli, but I feel like the storyline has gone beyond the point where either choice would satisfy readers, and the readership began grumbling about feeling dissatisfied with the series several books back.
So what’s a writer to do? I think it’s a matter of being aware that just because readers clamor “More! More!” it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should trump up a sequel or drag out your series arc to try to milk the success of a popular beginning. Because I guarantee you, it would be a crappy day indeed if you stumbled across the “that’s where the series started to suck” review under your own work. If readers are asking for a sequel for your novel, determine if there’s more growth your character needs, or if really you’ve told their story fully, and adding a new conflict for them to resolve would feel contrived.
PsyCop and Channeling Morpheus began as one-offs, but after the initial story came out, I saw that I wasn’t quite finished with the main characters yet, and they had some growing to do. However, other novels like Magic Mansion, The Starving Years and Hemovore wrapped up on such a definitive note that introducing a new conflict just for the sake of giving the characters more face-time would have amounted to strapping on the waterskis.
Author and artist Jordan Castillo Price is the owner of JCP Books and the author of many award-winning gay paranormal thrillers, including PsyCop and Magic Mansion. Her latest series, Turbulence, is a twisted foray into the Bermuda Triangle. Check it out at JCPbooks.com
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