Don’t Go Trying Some New Fashion*

Once we get to know a fictional character, especially if it’s a character in a series, we have certain expectations of that character, just as we have certain expectations of the real-life people we know. When a character acts very differently to what we’ve come to expect, that change can be jarring, and even pull a reader out of a story.

Of course, it’s a tricky balance, as are a lot of things in writing. If a character stays exactly the same throughout a series, then that character hasn’t grown and can even be a bit boring. On the other hand, characters who abruptly change the way they act without a very good reason don’t seem real, and it can be off-putting.

When we first meet Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in The Secret Adversary, they’re young, adventurous, and willing to take risks. They’re not danger-loving, but they do get involved in some dangerous situations. As the years go by, they become a bit more settled, especially as they raise their children. They don’t take quite as many risks, and they don’t seek out adventure. But their characters don’t completely change. Even as they get older, they’re very much interested in life, they’re curious, and they still like a bit of adventure. They have children (and grandchildren), and that adds a certain dimension to their characters, too. But they don’t radically change the people they are, and it’s interesting to see how Christie allowed them to evolve over time.

One of the featured characters in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series is Sergeant Edgar ‘Wieldy’ Wield. He arguably doesn’t play a significant role in the early novels in the series, but he starts to play more of a role in A Pinch of Snuff, the fifth Dalziel/Pascoe novel. He gives the impression of a rather unflappable, dependable colleague, and so he is. But as the series goes on and he develops more, we see that there are other sides to his character, and he becomes more sure of himself. Crucially, though, he doesn’t abruptly change the way he acts. He doesn’t, for instance, suddenly develop a hair-trigger temper. Rather, he evolves in believable ways. So, in some senses, he does act differently later in the series, but it’s not what you’d really call out of character – not out of the character he becomes.

Karin Fossum’s Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer is widowed, and at the beginning of the series, he is still facing his grief. It doesn’t prevent him from doing his job, and doing it well, but his focus is his work, and he’s not very much of a risk-taker otherwise. He’s content to drive the speed limit, and he keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes. Interestingly enough, and somewhat outside of his character, he does enjoy some skydiving. In fact, in He Who Fears the Wolf, he proposes a bet with his assistant, Jacob Skarre. If Sejer is right about the case they’re working, Skarre has to go skydiving with him. If Skarre is right, Sejer has to go with Skarre to The King’s Arms and get thoroughly drunk. The thought of being publicly drunk is enough to make Sejer shudder, and Skarre feels the same way about skydiving. It’s interesting to see that other side of Sejer’s character, given that he’s not a fan of risk-taking. But it does prepare the reader for Sejer’s evolution as the series goes on. He doesn’t become an extreme adventure-seeker, and he doesn’t start dating a lot of women. But he does learn to open up a little, and he does begin a relationship.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Much of the series is set in the small rural town of Three Pines; so, as the series goes on, readers get to know many of the people who live there, including artist Clara Morrow. As the series begins, Clara is not a ‘shrinking violet,’ but she doesn’t have a lot of confidence in herself, especially not as an artist. As the series goes on, she finds her artistic voice, and her work gets noticed. It’s a difficult change in some ways, as her husband, Peter, has always been considered the true artist in their family. But Clara learns to appreciate her own talent. She doesn’t radically change the way she acts, so her development isn’t jarring. She doesn’t, for instance, become an attention-seeking ‘prima donna,’ nor does she act arrogantly about her work. That would be out of character for her. Instead, her evolution is more subtle, and she behaves in ways that are consistent with who she is and what we’ve come to expect of her.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. He’s a Saskatoon-based former police officer who’s become a private investigator. As the series begins, he’s got some growing and maturing to do. He means well, but he’s not always ‘tuned in’ to others, and he can be oblivious, even to those who care about him. He’s a good person, though, and as the series goes on, he does mature. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t do dramatically different things as he grows. What’s more, his growth doesn’t happen magically. He faces loss and grief, and copes with the end of more than one relationship. He also faces seeing his friends go through difficult things. All of this has a maturing effect on Quant’s character, so that he doesn’t behave in completely unexpected ways. The changes he makes are not jarring.

And that’s the thing. When a character behaves in a completely unexpected way, this can jar the reader, and even lessen a story. At the same time, characters do (and readers want them to) grow and change as time goes by. The key is arguably to create characters who evolve in ways we can understand, and who behave in ways that make sense given where they are in their development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

16 thoughts on “Don’t Go Trying Some New Fashion*

  1. Yes, while in vintage crime fiction characters remained fairly static and unageing, contemporary crime requires them to change, as you say. I believe Rebus was one of the first to age in real time. Even Dalziel never got much older than he was when he first appeared, although both Pascoe and Wield did. And if they must age, then it would be odd if they didn’t change and grow too. There are one or two where I find that they seem stuck for too long in a situation for it to feel “real” – Ruth Galloway’s feelings for Nelson, for example, and though it hurts me to say it, Maeve Kerrigan is in danger of a similar kind of rut with Josh Derwent. It’s tricky, because readers might not want that risk-taking young adventurer to turn into a middle-aged spouse with children and comfortable slippers, but it’s much more true to life than them staying the same for ever.


    1. You know, it really is much more true to life to have a fictional sleuth age, have (grand)children, and so on. That’s what happens to people. Even if their adventures aren’t as exhilarating (or at least, not in the same way) , that growth and change just feels normal. As for Maeve Kerrigan, I’ve been wondering about her, too. I hope she does some growing and changing, because I really do like her character. The same is true of Ruth Galloway. I’d love to see her straighten her feelings about Harry out! It’s hard to strike that balance, of course, but at some point, you wonder whether a sleuth is going to learn from life’s lessons. I’m glad Rankin let Rebus grow and change, and I think Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has, too (although he still needs to get his love life settled!). Funny about Dalziel – I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right. He doesn’t age and change the way Pascoe and Wield do. Hmmm… Interesting to ponder. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

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  2. Interesting post, Margot. I think characters have to evolve really, otherwise you might feel like you are reading the same book over and over again. Like you say, I’m sure authors have to take baby steps with these changes though. There can be dramatic instances where behaviour for previously rational characters seems odd – ie someone’s drink is spiked, or a concussion, or illness. That said I’m lost for examples.


    1. I like the way you put that, Col – reading the same book over and over. That’s exactly how it feels if a character doesn’t grow and change over time. I think you’re right, too, that there are cases where a seemingly rational character behaves strangely, or where, say, a very shy character starts acting assertively. But I think it’s most realistic if those things have believable explanations.


      1. I disagree about reading the same book over and over. Is that how you feel about the Poirot novels? Campion? Even Mike Shayne? If the plot is different, the sameness – the expected behavior- of the character is glue holding the book together.


      2. You make an interesting point, Rick. In those cases, for me (and I won’t speak for anyone else), the plots are constructed so well, for the most part, that they keep me re-reading. And I think those authors do occasionally put in little bits about the characters that add to their depth and make them interesting.


  3. Really interesting post, Margot. It must be tricky as a writer if you have a long-running character – do you allow them development and risk upsetting your readers, or stick to a formula with them but perhaps get bored yourself? I think Poirot and Marple stayed pretty much themselves, but they were old to start with. Holmes became an even darker character I think. However, you highlight Tommy and Tuppence who are favourites of mine, and I loved what Christie did with them. By allowing them to age so well but still remaining themselves made them extremely relatable. As people we change outwarding, but I think are often still the same underneath, and she was very successful at capturing that with T&T!


    1. Thanks, KBR. And you are so right about the way Christie captured the inner vs outer person with the Beresfords! I really like that about their characters. And now that I’m – ahem – no longer twenty myself, I understand all too well that you may feel like you’re twenty-five inside, but outside…. As for Holmes, you know, I hadn’t thought about his character getting darker, but I do see what you mean. Certainly his character doesn’t become ‘bright and sunny,’ and I suppose that makes sense. He’s seen a lot. As you say, it is a bit tricky as a writer. You don’t want your characters ‘frozen in place’ and boring. On the other hand, people expect certain things from them. That balancing act can be a challenge.

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  4. These all sound very good. I read Louise Penny’s latest and although I hadn’t read many of the other books in the series, I didn’t have much problem following. I’m wondering if it’s possible to pick up almost any where in a series and still be able to follow. Or are there series that simply require reading each one from the get go. Enjoy your weekend, Margot.


    1. Thanks, Carol. I hope you have a great weekend, too. I think there are some series that really need to be read in order. It might be because of character development or something else, but they’re best appreciate in order. With the Penny series, I think there are story arcs that are best understood if you read the novels in order, but Penny’s talented enough to draw readers in even if they’re not familiar with the story arcs or previous character development. I think that’s the key.


  5. I agree with the progression of characters by Louise and Anthony. I can think of more examples where I was disappointed. In the Walt Longmire (Craig Johnson) and Elvis Cole (Robert Crais) it was having the sleuths becoming solo weapons of mass destruction slaying villains by the page. I hope Walt returns to being an actual Sheriff but I am not optimistic. I have not read Elvis in a few years.


    1. I know what you mean, Bill, about both Longmire and Cole as characters. Longmire, especially, is a thoughtful character, and I’d like to see him return to that, too. I was also thinking of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill’s Hazel Micallef. I think she, too, changed, but not in ways that I thought worked well.


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