Standing on My Own Two Feet*

One of the writing projects I’m working on right now is a standalone that features one of the characters from my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. It’s a bit of a risk. After all, it’s one thing for a character to appear – even to have an important role – in a novel. It’s quite another for that character to feature in the lead role.

And yet, there are cases where it’s done successfully. And sometimes, that character has enough backstory, personality, and so on to make a novel (or even a new series) interesting. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) series (which begins with Dangerous and Unseemly) features Concordia Wells, who teaches at Hartford Women’s College. It’s not so much that she’s overly eager to investigate and solve crimes. And in her world, ‘proper’ ladies do not interest themselves in something as sordid as murder. But she is curious, and she does want to see justice done. So, she gets drawn into mysteries. One of the characters we meet in that series is Penelope Hamilton Wynch, a former operative for Pinkerton’s. She serves as a mentor for Concordia, but she doesn’t ‘star’ in that series. Still, she’s an interesting character in her own right. So, Owen decided to give Penelope her own series. That series, which begins with Never Sleep, starts some thirty years before the Concordia Wells series. It tells the story of Penelope’s work with Pinkerton’s and details some of her cases.

Henning Mankell is perhaps best known for his series featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander. Fans of that series will know that Wallander has a daughter, Linda, with whom he has a complicated relationship. As the series goes on, she begins to come into her own as a character. In fact, Mankell planned a three-novel series in which she was to be the protagonist. The first novel, Before the Frost, was published in 2002. But, tragically, Johanna Sällström, who took the role of Linda Wallander in the Swedish television series, died in 2007, probably by suicide. Her death had a real impact on Mankell, and he never finished the trilogy. It would have been interesting to see Linda’s character develop over time if he had.

Michael Connelly took a very interesting approach to giving a character a ‘spinoff’ series. Fans will know that Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a homicide detective for the L.A.P.D. He is the son of Marjorie Lowe, who was a prostitute, and prominent attorney J. Michael ‘Mickey’ Haller. Bosch never met his father, and his mother was murdered when he was a boy. So, he grew up mostly in a children’s home. In The Black Ice, Connelly shares a flashback in which Bosch discovers who his father is, and learns that he is dying. He decides to pay his father a visit, and, later attends his funeral. Bosch also learns that he has a half brother several years younger:

‘The half brother was now a top defense attorney and Harry was a cop. There was a strange congruence to that that Bosch found acceptable. They had never spoken and probably never would.’

That half brother turns out to be Mickey Haller, whom we later meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. He has his own backstory, including two ex-wives, a daughter, and his own history with his father. Since The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has appeared in eight other Connelly novels, and ‘starred’ in five of them. He’s certainly become very much his own character, and fans will tell you that he carries that series quite well.

Tana French has also taken an interesting approach to giving some of her characters their own stories. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes (thus far) six novels. The first two feature Cassie Maddox (although In the Woods really ‘stars’ Rob Ryan). In the second, The Likeness, we’re introduced to Frank Mackey, who is the main protagonist in the next novel, Faithful Place. That sort of shifting of main characters happens in the other novels, too. In real life, police detectives do move in and out of assignments. They join and leave squads, and so on. It makes sense that that would happen in this series, too, and that’s how French has chosen to write it.

And then there’s Kathy Reichs’ Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. She’s a forensic anthropologist who’s moved from North Carolina to Montréal, where she’s called in when the bodies of murder victims can’t easily be identified. Fans will tell you that, along with her professional work, Brennan also has family issues that sometimes come up. And one of those family members is her grand-niece, Tory. Tory doesn’t really play a role in this series, but she does in another series that Reichs has written with her son, Benjamin. That four-book YA series, called the Virals series, tells the story of a group of young people who live in South Carolina. The novels have elements of the speculative (the young people, for instance, acquire special powers through a mysterious infection they get in the first novel). The focus, though, is on the mysteries that they solve.

There are all sorts of ways in which a character in one novel or series can end as the main character in another. It is a bit tricky to do that, as that character has to be strong enough to take the lead. When it works, though, it can make for an interesting new direction for an author.

ps. The picture shows just how well spin-offs can work on television…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jean Beauvoir.


Filed under Henning Mankell, K.B. Owen, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, Tana French

35 responses to “Standing on My Own Two Feet*

  1. Hi Margot — it’s interesting you’re using a minor character as the lead in a new book. I’m doing the same thing. I’ve taken the female cop from Dead Wrong and five years later she’s a detective trying to solve a multiple murder.

    • Oh, that sounds great, Pat! I really like that idea. It gives some continuity to the characters, without restricting you to the premise, etc.. that you use in Dead Wrong. I like it!

  2. I have just finished Past Tense and was thinking that Joel could use a much bigger role as I liked who he was and what he stood for but would have liked to know him better. No risk, no gain (and I don’t think it is a stretch anyway). Write On, right on 🙂

  3. That’s fascinating about the Kathy Reich books – I reckon if I read the YA books, I’d have a hard time reconciling the fantasy element back to the reality of the main series. Maybe that’s because I have a resistance to fantasy in general, but I think I’d be left wondering what Tempe thought of it all…

    I do think bringing other characters to the fore is a good way of keeping a series from getting stale. It was one of the things I enjoyed about the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, not only that they took turns at being the lead, but that Hill also allowed Ellie and Wieldy to become the main focus from time to time. And, dare I say it, I actually prefer the Lewis series to the Morse one…

    • Ah, but with Kevin Whately in the lead role, how could you not love the Lewis series, FictionFan? And you’re right about the way Hill used his characters. I liked getting to know Wieldy and Ellie better than I would have if the only lead had been Dalziel or Pascoe (or even both). That took skill on Hill’s part, I think. And it does add some zest and freshness if it’s done right.

      I’m not much of a one for fantasy/paranormal, myself. But I have read a few novels and series where it worked quite well. I think in deft hands it can. And it would be interesting to see what Tempe would think of what her grand-niece is up to… I do give Reichs a lot of credit for branching out like that, too. It’s hard enough to do two series in the same genre. But to get into different genres and different approaches to those genres, well, that takes skill.

  4. Here’s hoping it works out well! Personally, I like those kind of sequels- ones that let the main character rest, but still build off of the ‘universe’ that is established. Best wishes!

  5. I am very interested in the new standalone that you are working on, Margot. And I like all the examples you gave of authors branching off with a character from an established series (or variations on that).

    • Thanks, Tracy. I hope it goes well. So far, so good. And thanks for the kind words. There really are, I think, some good precedents of characters branching off as you say.

  6. My Mum was just talking about the Haller character last week as she really likes him and wishes there were more. I have just been reading one of Robert B Parker’s JESSE STONE and had forgotten how much some of the characters from his other series occasionally would cross-pollinate. Good luck with your new book Margot 🙂

    • Thanks, Sergio. And I agree with your mum; Mickey Haller is a good character. He’s really interesting. As for Jesse Stone, it’s funny you’d mention him. I was thinking of the way Parker cross-pollinated, and almost mentioned it here. I didn’t, so I’m very glad you did.

  7. Oooh, I’m now intrigued as to which character will get his or her own novel? One of the police officers? Or could it be Patricia? I’m rather rooting for her…

  8. I loved Lincoln Lawyer, the book and the film adaptation. I didn’t realize Kathy Reichs wrote YA with her son. How cool.

    • Hit “Post” too soon. Meant to add, sometimes reviews mentioning that secondary character lead the author to writing them into a book of their own.

      • Oh, don’t worry, Sue. The ‘Post’ button is not always our friend. I make so many mistakes with it… And you’re right about the power of review. Sometimes those reviews let the author know that people want more of that secondary character. And it’s a great opportunity to let that character tell her or his story.

    • I think that’s cool, too, Sue. And it’s an interesting series. An innovative twist, too, to have a main character who ‘branches off’ from another series.

  9. Col

    Good luck with it, Margot. Joe Pike comes out from Elvis Cole’s shadow on occasions. Time for some more Robert Crais!

  10. Hey Margot, thanks so much for the shout-out! I had readers asking to see more of Penelope, so rather than force her into the Concordia series where it wouldn’t make sense, I decided to give her a series of her own. It’s also fun to explore a different POV, in this case first person. I’m sure you’re going to have lots of fun delving into your secondary character! Best of success!

    • Thanks, Kathy! And thank you for sharing your experience giving Penelope her own series. I love it that you listened to your readings, and I think it worked beautifully in your case. Oh, and it’s my pleasure to tell my readers about it. Interesting about the different POV, too. It really can stretch the writing muscles to try a different POV and stretch a character.

  11. I really like it when a ‘minor’ character takes on the lead role and is one of the things that really draws me to Tana French’s books – I can’t wait to see who gets picked for the starring role next time! Great post although the Mannkel story is a very sad one.

    • It is a sad story, Cleo, all around. I feel for everyone involved. You make an interesting point about Tana French’s work, too. I don’t know who’ll star next time, but she has a really effective way of letting different minor characters take the lead, but still keeping the overall structure of the series. To me, that takes skill.

  12. Good luck with your project, Margot. You are in excellent company! 🙂

  13. kathy d.

    Your project sounds like a good one.
    I enjoy how Tana French uses different characters from the Dublin Murder Squad in each book. The best by far in my view is The Trespasser. I wonder what she’ll do now.
    Also, Susie Steiner’s series with Manon Bradshaw shifts points of view among different characters. The second book, “Persons Unknown,” gives more of a role to another police detective, and then pulls in a civilian, and it’s not clear if she’ll be a recurring character.

    • Thanks, Kathy; I hope it’ll go well. I agree with you about Tana French. She shifts different lead characters quite effectively, and it will be interesting to see what she does next. And it sounds as though Steiner does a similar thing.

  14. Now that you mention it, Margot, it’s interesting how often that happens. When Nicholas Freeling killed off Van de Valk, he made the widow a lead character in later novels.

    • You’re absolutely right, Christine! Arlette does get to ‘star’ later in the series, and I hadn’t thought of that when I prepared this post. Thanks for filling in that gap. And you’re right; it is interesting how often that happens.

  15. A fascinating subject, and all the examples I can think of have been mentioned. I love the Tana French novels, and the way different characters come to the fore. And by chance I have just scheduled a post on Van der Valk… coming tomorrow!

    • Oh, I’m looking forward to that one, Moira! And I agree with you about Tana French’s novels. She does have a very effective way of letting different characters ‘star’ in the stories. It happens quite realistically, in my opinion, so that you don’t feel it’s contrived.

  16. Pingback: Writing Links 7/31/17 – Where Genres Collide

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