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.