One of the nice things about series is that the author has some room to allow the protagonist(s) to grow and mature. It’s harder in a standalone to show how a character evolves. And it makes sense that main characters would evolve and mature in some way as a series goes on. Time, experience and (hopefully) wisdom help us mature in real life and most readers want to see the same kind of growth in their fictional characters.
For instance, Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane matures and evolves as Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series goes on. When we first meet Vane in Strong Poison, she’s on trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey falls in love with her and is determined to clear her name so he can marry her. At first, Vane keeps herself at a distance from people and is unwilling to trust. She’s grateful to Wimsey but isn’t ready to really open up to him. And although she’s hardly a ‘shrinking violet,’ she does lack some self-confidence despite her success as a mystery novelist. As time goes on, she deals with the trauma of having been thought guilty of murder. She also deals with the insecurity of worrying about what others think of her. By the end of Gaudy Night, she is ready to take the risk of agreeing to marry Wimsey and we can see her mature and become a more confident person. That growth and evolution makes Vane a more well-rounded and likeable character.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee matures and evolves over time too. When we first meet him in People of Darkness, Chee investigates the murder of a man who was already dying, and its connection to a thirty-year-old oil field explosion and a stolen keepsake box. Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and his Navajo identity is very important to him. In fact he’s studying to be a yata’ali – a Navajo singer/healer. But Chee is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, and he’s quite familiar with the dominant U.S. culture in which the Navajo people live. What’s more, he’s in love with Mary Landon, a White teacher who lives and works on the Reservation. So at first Chee is torn between those two worlds. As time goes on and he matures, Chee also becomes surer of his identity and learns how to maintain his Navajo traditions and way of thinking despite the police work he does and his interactions with the FBI and other dominant-culture institutions. He evolves personally too although it costs him two serious relationships. When he meets and falls in love with fellow Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Maneulito, Chee is emotionally more mature and it makes sense that their relationship ends up being more lasting. We also see Chee’s evolution as a professional. At first, he tends to be more of a ‘go your own way’ type of investigator. But as time goes on he learns to work more smoothly within the police system, especially after he has the opportunity to do some supervisory work himself.
We also see a very human kind of growth and evolving maturity in Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. As the series featuring her begins, Harry is postmistress for the small Virginia town of Crozet. She is also smarting from her recent divorce from local veterinarian Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen. What makes this divorce doubly painful is that Harry found out her husband was unfaithful. In Wish You Were Here, Harry gets involved in the murder of local building contractor Kelly Craycroft. As she investigates, we can see that although she’s likeable, she’s too unwilling to trust others or ask for help when she needs it. And honestly, she takes more risks than it makes sense for her to do. As the series goes on though, we see her becoming more mature. She learns to accept help both on the farm she runs and in her investigations. She takes fewer really dangerous risks too. And in her personal life, she becomes less judgemental. That growth makes more a more likeable character as the series goes on.
Even though Louise Penny’s Québec police inspector Armand Gamache is fairly mature as the series featuring him begins, there’s room for him to grow too and we see that as the series moves on. In Still Life, Gamache and his team investigate the supposedly accidental killing of beloved retired schoolteacher Jane Neal. One of the sub-plots in this novel is the hint we get that Gamache is facing serious repercussions from another case. Without giving away spoilers I can say that that case becomes a story arc and as later novels tell the story of that other case, we see how Gamache becomes more settled about it and learns to face it in a more self-confident and mature way. We also see how in Still Life, A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), The Cruelest Month and other novels in this series, Gamache faces some of his fears. For instance, he’s not especially comfortable with heights, but has to face that in Still Life. He feels haunted by a particular house (and with good reason) in the small town of Three Pines, where many of these novels take place. And yet he learns to go there and do what needs to be done. Those signs of growth make Gamache a more real character.
Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett does her share of maturing and growing too and what’s especially appealing about it is that she is still in the process. When we first meet Scarlett in The Coffin Trail, she is named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. That’s hardly a choice position and Scarlett was actually named to it because of her performance on an earlier case. So at first she’s dealing with a sense of failure and the insecurity of being the new leader of team whose respect she has to earn. It takes time but by the time of The Hanging Wood, Scarlett has learned some leadership skills and she’s more confident as she plans strategy, supervises her team and deals with her own bosses. Scarlett also does some personal growing. Throughout most of the novels in this series she lives with book dealer Marc Amos and although they care about each other, their relationship is certainly not an easy one. Amos is hardly a perfect ‘catch;’ he has his share of insecurities, immaturity and so on. But Scarlett isn’t exactly a self-confident, mature partner either. So as the series goes on, we see how she is held back by her need to do some growing of her own. The Frozen Shroud, the next entry in this Lake District series, is due to be released in April and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing how Hannah Scarlett continues to mature as a character.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche, we meet Saskatoon PI Russell Quant, who has recently opened his own agency. He’s hired in this novel to find computer entrepreneur Tom Osborn, who disappeared just before his wedding to successful businessman Harold Chavell. When Osborn later turns up dead, Chavell becomes a suspect. So Quant investigates the murder to clear his client’s name. In this novel and the next few novels, Quant isn’t in a serious relationship but in the course of the series, he gets deeply involved twice. Each of those relationships teaches him about being responsible to other people and reaching out to them. He also learns a lot through the course of this series about being aware of others’ perspectives and the realities they face. Quant does some real maturing and growing up as the series continues and it makes him a more interesting and compassionate person.
And that’s the thing about characters who evolve with a series. We see how time and experience mature them and add to their richness. And that keeps a series interesting even after several novels. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples. Which gaps have I left?
ps The ‘photos are of my lovely daughter as a child and recently, with her own daughter. I am so delighted at the way she’s grown up.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five For Fighting’s Story of Your Life.