It’s the Story of Your Life, You’re Moving Down the Page*

MaturingOne 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.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Rita Mae Brown, Tony Hillerman

32 responses to “It’s the Story of Your Life, You’re Moving Down the Page*

  1. Lovely to see some family photos here Margot. And some great examples. Yes Jim Chee does mature once he finally settles down. I think it’s interesting how Allingham’s Campion changes too over the series.I hate it when the love interest of someone gets killed off just to make the protagonist more interesting. What’s wrong with a detective with a happy home life? Look at Maigret.

    • Thank you – and well said, Sarah! There is no need for a love interest to get killed off. As you say, Maigret’s a good example and so is Reg Wexford and so is Armand Gamache. They all grow and change without the need to lose the ones they love. And thanks for mentioning Albert Campion. He does indeed do some growing and evolving as the series goes on.

  2. Margot, I think it’s inevitable that an author who creates a series detective will see that character grow and mature, just as the author’s writing grows and matures as s/he becomes more familiar with the character.

    There really is no shortage of examples.

    Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple surely grows and matures, from the rather basic gossipy little-old-lady we meet in “Murder at the Vicarage” to a woman who strikes me as much wiser, a little sadder, more mature in the later novels.

    In Rex Stout’s novels, I can’t say Nero Wolfe changes that much – but Archie Goodwin certainly grows and matures. When we meet him in “Fer-de-Lance,” he has a lot of rough edges; by the 1950s and 60s, he is far more polished and sophisticated (and more likeable to the reader as well).

    Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion really starts out as a rather fatuous character, usually hiding behind that assumed air of idiocy. By the later, and, I think, better novels, he is far more sophisticated; certainly his marriage helps to mature him.

    And if I may choose a more modern series (though one I admit I haven’t followed for several books now), Mary Daheim’s newspaper owner/editor Emma Lord, the central character in her “Alpine” series, grows and matures from book to book, as she is affected by case after case, even going through a tremendous personal tragedy and loss in one of the books. She develops and matures, which I suspect is why I enjoy the Alpine books while I’m less enamored of Daheim’s other series.

    As usual, your post opens up far too many possibilities here – thanks for opening the subject!

    • Les – I couldn’t agree more. Most series authors do have their characters do some growing and changing as the series moves on. And thank you for all of the terrific examples. I always appreciate your perspective. You know, I’d thought about the Wolfe series but of course I thought more about Wolfe than Goodwin. As you say, Wolfe doesn’t do much changing and evolving but Archie Goodwin does as the series moves on. Thanks for making me think that through. And you’re exactly right I think about Albert Campion. I like the way he matures over time; I really do. He’s much more likeable in the later novels than he is in Fer de Lance and the other earlier ones.
      Thanks also for the mention of the Emma Lord series. That’s one I need to re-acquaint myself with – soon. And thanks for the kind words. Your input always makes me think, and that’s a good thing.

  3. Lovely photos Margot. In my teens, when I first got into reading what I suppose we would terms ‘series’ fiction, with recurring characters, I was actually very resistant to the idea that they might change – I always resented the changes to a formula I liked in the way of say marriage (I’m looking at you Albert Campion and Philip Marlowe) or even old age and death (yes, you Monsieur Poirot and Inspector Morse) – now, as you so rightly point out, that is surely the real benefit of a series (when done well of course). I now find that characters that remain pickled in aspic (as it were) don’t interest me as much – great post, thank you.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words about the post and the ‘photos. It’s interesting how your attitude about what you like in crime fiction has evolved as you’ve matured. I wonder if teens like that kind of static dependability because they’re feeling so upended themselves. I know when I was a teen I liked to know what I was getting, so to speak, with what I read too. I may be making an association that isn’t there, but it did occur to me. And like you, I prefer my protagonists not to get fossilised. They are more human when they mature and evolve, and as Sarah so rightly points out, they can do that without necessarily always having to go through tragedy.

  4. First, I want to say… Thanks for sharing those photos of your daughter.

    Almost every series you mentioned here I want to try or continue to read more of. (Sayers I have already read all the books.) One of the reasons I like series is to see the changes in the characters. And follow continuing relationships. When I read a stand-alone I almost always want it to continue.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you enjoyed the ‘photos. And I know what you mean about wanting to know ‘what happens next’ when a good standalone ends. I like following the development of the characters in series and for me, it’s a sure sign that a series is not going to work for me if I simply don’t care what happens to the characters when I’m done with a novel.

  5. I loved the love stories developing over the books – that’s Sayers/Vane and Campion/Amanda particularly, they were a joy to me. I never minded that they developed alongside the crimes – I know some people did. Sayers apologized for it in the intro to Busman’s Honeymoon I think. Thanks for sharing your family photos – lovely!

    • Moira – Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the ‘photos. And you know, I never minded the love stories either. I think it’s partly because they are secondary to the plots. That is, neither Allingham nor Sayers lost sight of the fact that she was writing a mystery, not a romance. I also think it’s because the characters behave in believable ways. You can actually care what happens to them.

  6. Margot: I am sure those photos brighten every day for you.

    My favourite example of a character living a life is the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen set in Saskatchewan. We see Joanne raising her original family and now interacting with grandchildren. She has romantic relationships. She has now married for the second time. She has gone through the challenges of being a university professor and is now retired. Best of all the progressions in relationships have included her children. We see them mature and develop their own lives. All done in good mysteries.

    While Harry Bosch has not had the same development of life as Joanne Kilbourn he has moved ahead through relationships and is now raising a teenage daughter. He is not the same man he was when the series began 20 years ago.

    • Bill – They do indeed brighten my days. And you’re quite right about the evolution of Joanne Kilbourn’s character. In every novel she gets more mature, stronger and wiser. And yet, Bowen doesn’t make her sanctimonious. She continues to deal with life in a very human way; sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Folks, please do try this series if you haven’t.
      And as for Harry Bosch? Yes indeed he’s done some growing. He’s much more responsible in a lot of ways than he was, and I think he’s fitting in to parenthood better than he would have had he been responsible for Maddie even ten years before he was. Good point.

  7. kathy d.

    So many characters grow and change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Look at Salvo Montalbano. In The Young Montalbano TV episodes, he’s eager, inventive, collaborative, and fun. In the later TV episodes and books — which are great, among my favorites, he’s irritable, cynical, jaded, gruff, tough — i.e., an aging curmudgeon.
    Harry Bosch does change for the better, as far as personal relationships go.

    • Kathy – You’re absolutely right that not every character changes for the better. Sometimes characters (and Montalbano is a good example) do get more cynical as the years go by. Other characters become withdrawn, especially when something happens to them. Sometimes life experiences do change people in a negative way.

  8. kathy d.

    Oops, the reason I even started writing here was to tell you what a lovely family you have, and how quickly has the little one grown. It seems like a few months ago when you posted her baby picture.

  9. sue

    I love your family photos! The post paled into insignificance when I looked at the photos of your lovely family. How proud you must be.

    I must re read Tony Hillerman because I really enjoyed his books and I realise I have forgotten a lot of the stories, but the characters remain vividly etched. And you have prompted me to re read Dorothy Sayers.

    One example I can think of, off the top of my head, is the Marcia Muller heroine Sharon Mc Cone – she changes quite a lot over the series and it’s a vey enjoyable journey.

    • Sue – Thank you – Thant’s very kind of you. I am indeed proud.
      Hillerman and Sayers were, of course really different as authors, but both created some (I think) excellent characters who develop and mature over time. And so does Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. I’m glad you mentioned her as she goes through several changes as the series goes on.

  10. Margot in the European front some characters left are: Wallander, Montalbano, Rebus and Van Veeteren, just from the top of my mind,

  11. Great examples here, Margot. I think evolving characters lend realism to a series. Wallander is another example.

    Love the pictures of your beautiful daughter!

    • Elizabeth – Thank you – and thanks for the kind words. You’re absolutely right about characters, too. When they evolve (and Wallander certainly does!), they keep a series fresh and lend interest to it. And as the characters grow, this allows for other kinds of plots and plot points.

  12. Thanks for sharing the pics, Margot. I love a series where things change over time. As a kid I remember watching BETSY, TACY AND TIB grow up along with the Ingalls family.

    • Patti – Oh, my goodness! I remember Betsy, Tacy and Tib, too! And I really do think it adds to a series when we get to see what characters are like as they evolve; it adds interest.

  13. So many good examples here that I hardly can think of any to add – except Aurelio Zen maybe. But perhaps it is inevitable that an Italian detective gets jaded and cynical (thank goodness Brunetti doesn’t seem to – perhaps Paula keeps him on his toes).
    I can’t believe you have such a grown-up daughter – and isn’t it amazing how she is instantly recognizable, despite the age gap in the pictures!

    • Marian Sofia – Thank you -I’m glad you liked the examples. And Aurelio Zen really is a solid example of a sleuth who gets cynical over time. I’m honestly not sure how one avoids it unless one is married as you say to someone like Paola Falier. And thanks for the kind words about the ‘photos. I know I’m biased, but my daughter really is lovely, I think, and always has been…

  14. I think that’s why series sell well–it’s because readers relate to the character, fall in love with them and want to follow them on their adventures!

    • Nutschell – Oh, that’s such a well-taken point! People get involved in series because they find a character intriguing and want to know what happens next with that person. And once a character gets one’s attention, it’s easy to get addicted.

  15. Lovely photos Margot.
    What about the descent into extreme grumpiness by Kurt Wallander on the road to his sad ending in The Troubled Man. Van Veeteren leaves the police for a bookshop heaven and then while has a great family tragedy. It is all part of life, and I think those crime writers who give their characters real lives make a connection with their readers.

    • Norman – Thank you 🙂 – And I think you’re quite right about the changes we see in Wallander over time. It’s sad but realistic. And I like the way Van Veeteren evolves and pursues his interests over time. Those are terrific examples of what I mean.

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