Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Kathleen Ernst

As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author Kathleen Ernst is visiting my blog today. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Above is the cover photo for her September 8th release from Midnight Ink, The Heirloom Murders, the second book in her Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites series.

Working for Old World Wisconsin, Chloe Ellefson delights in losing herself in antiques and folk traditions--and forgetting her messy love life. Then the outdoor ethnic museum becomes a murder scene. Does the missing Eagle diamond, a legendary gemstone unearthed in 1876, have anything to do with it? Could Simon Sabatola, a rich AgriFutures executive who possibly drove his wife to suicide, be responsible? Chloe learns that some things never change in this compelling mystery of old-fashioned greed, Swiss green cheese, and a nearly-extinct heirloom flower.

What an interesting mix of ingredients for a mystery! Below is Kathleen's guest article. She's giving a book away to one lucky commenter, so please leave a comment with your opinion to enter the drawing.


Should a Series Protagonist Grow and Change?
by Kathleen Ernst


At a mystery convention I attended last winter, one of the honored guests—a bestselling thriller author—said that characters in series should never change. Once a complex character has been created, he said, leave him or her alone. This allows readers to enjoy a series without worrying about the sequence, picking up individual titles in any order without any surprises or confusion.

Well, I was a bit surprised and confused by his advice. I wrote stand-alones for years before creating my Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites series, and I always thought about how the character would grow and change within the book. It never occurred to me to approach my Chloe mysteries any differently.

After the guest spoke, the panel moderator agreed that he “hated it” when a character changed. In his opinion, readers want to escape with a reliable hero and want to be able to anticipate what a character will do in each book.

OK, I thought, perhaps this advice applies primarily to action-driven thrillers. Then a well-known mystery author chimed in by saying it was “ridiculous” to expect characters to grow and change in each book.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I respectfully disagree.

When I read mysteries I admire great plots, but if I don’t care about the characters I won’t want to go on long multi-book rides with them. I’m not saying that a protagonist needs to face an enormous personal crisis in each volume, but I do expect them to be in at least a slightly different emotional place by the last page.

As my series progresses, Chloe--curator at a living history museum--will in each book have a murder to help solve. She will also confront a personal issue. In Old World Murder, Chloe has to decide if she cares enough about her new job to stick around. In The Heirloom Murders, an old flame arrives unexpectedly, complicating her new relationship with local cop Roelke McKenna. In the course of solving the puzzle, she’ll figure out something important that affects her personal problem as well.

I’m having a lot of fun thinking and planning ahead, visualizing a series arc created by the individual arc of each book. But…how about you? I’m fascinated by the question of growth and change in a series protagonist, and I’d love to get your opinion!


I’m grateful to Beth for allowing me to celebrate publication of The Heirloom Murders: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery by guest-posting here. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment, and your name will go into a drawing for a free book. The winner can choose any of my seventeen titles. The Heirloom Murders, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours! To learn more, please visit my website.

43 comments:

Mario said...

Maybe a character shouldn't change but he or she should at least learn from mistakes. Great post.

Lois Winston said...

Surprising comments from those other authors, Kathleen. I think no matter what you're writing, there has to be a character arc where the character is in a different place at the end of the book than at the beginning. Otherwise it makes for an unsatisfying read.

There's a very well known mystery author who's been receiving a lot of reader flack lately because after 17 books her protagonist has learned absolutely nothing about herself. I don't think protagonists in an ongoing series need to change drastically over the course of each book, but they do need to learn life lessons and grow in some way from their experiences, rather than continuing to make the same clueless mistakes over and over again. That just becomes predictable and boring.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Mario and Lois - interesting that you each referred to a character at the very least learning from their mistakes. I agree! Who can sympathize with a protagonist who makes the same mistakes book after book?

Susan M. Boyer said...

I think it depends to some degree on how mature a character is in book one. Some characters need to grow because they are young and inexperienced.

Others may just need to keep on wandering about, buying clothes at the thrift store, and kicking serious rump. :)

I believe I've heard the author mentioned in the blog make the same comments, at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. He stated that his readers want to know what they're getting when they pick up one of his novels. He compared his character to Camel cigarettes or Dom Perignon. :) I see his point.

I think this particular character is older and wiser than some others, which is why it works for him to not grow over the course of the series.

Kathleen Ernst said...

By the way - I ended up with an editorial meeting scheduled today, but I value your comments, and will check back as often as I can!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Well, the comparison to Dom Perignon is interesting! Who could argue with that? Obviously quality writing is key, time after time.

Do you think age is more relevant to the question than genre? I can see someone looking for escape with a thriller not expecting any new insights about a character.

jenny milchman said...

Huh. I'm confused, too. And trying to figure out who said that, I admit :) I love characters who grow with the series. And their experiences. How could someone not change when she or he has experienced murder and tragedy? Perhaps they remain essentially the same at their core, but change...of course! Very nice post.

Deborah Sharp said...

Good post, Kathleen. I get to have it both ways in my Mace Bauer series: I hope my main character IS growing and changing over the course of the books (I'm writing #5 now), but the title character, MAMA, is staying pretty much the same. I think people do like to become comfortable with an important character, and not see sweeping changes.

Kelly said...

It sounds a lot to me like the writers giving that advice were trying to justify not changing their hard wrought characters to themselves. From a reader's perspective, if the main character(s) does not grow or change with the series, it becomes harder to stay excited about it. I agree that a huge personal crisis or radical personality change is not necessary, but growth and learning are expected to stay in sync with reality. There is another series that I have read many critiques in which the readers are annoyed because the main character does NOT seem to grow or change from book to book.

Victorius said...

I've done some fiction writing over the years, and it has always been my goal to show growth in my characters, especially the main character. In The Lord of the Rings, the Frodo that returns to Bag End is not the same Hobbit that left less than a year earlier. If the conflict of the plot is significantly disturbing and challenging--as solving a murder would be--how can the character not reflect some change?

Now, if the author at the convention was speaking of a character's personality, well, that is one thing. But if he meant that the character should not become wiser, more insightful, more experienced, and more canny in his craft, then he has another think coming, IMHO.

lil Gluckstern said...

I like to see growth in characters simply because they represent people, and people change (hopefully). I think books that are thrillers without a change in the protagonists have a place. I just prefer my characters to be believable and human. Looking forward to checking out your books.

Deb Coonts said...

I'm in total agreement--the character should change and grow. I find static characters to be inherently uninteresting. Of course growth and change not only requires the author to figure out arcs for each novel, but also for the series-- very difficult. My main character grows and changes, but she is fundamentally the same person, value-wise as she was in the beginning.

Great post. Great quesrion.

Beth Groundwater said...

I'm loving your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, folks! I'm sure Kathleen will respond to ones she hasn't addressed yet when she gets a break in, or finishes, her editorial conference. In the meantime, keep 'em coming!

Cindy Sample said...

Kathleen, I'm completely with you. I feel that solving a mystery is just one component of my protagonists's journey. My character is 39 and dealing with life as a newly divorced mom so personal growth is necessary as part of her story. But her 62 year old up-tight mother (who I can relate to much better) is also mellowing with time. It makes their journey and mystery solving far more fun for me and hopefully my readers.

Kaye Killgore said...

Maybe the character's core values shouldn't change, but I agree they should be allowed to learn from their mistakes and grow from life lessons. After all, we all need to learn from life lessons, and be allowed to grow.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

To me, a series in which a character does not change is more of a product than a literary experience. I expect the character to change, to be someone else at the end of the book: not totally, but in some important way. Otherwise, why go on this journey? Perhaps Thrillers are written this way? I don't find them at all appealing, and perhaps this is why. I read to understand interpersonal interaction, I think (amongst other things). A book series is nicer, to my way of thinking, with an angle of trajectory, when each book is a unit in a story arc which gets more complex and satisfying as the series continues.

WS Gager said...

I'm with Kathleen! Characters should grow and learn something. I know exactly what series Lois mentioned and I for one have quit reading it because every book is the same. The writing is good and she's funny but I can only take so many stupid mistakes until you lose faith. My series character isn't the smartest when it comes to people and relationships but he learns something in each book that helps him on his journey and maybe one day he can have a real relationship. Just my take! Well done Kathleen and great guest blog Beth!
Wendy
W.S. Gager

Alicia said...

I think to be realistic a character almost has to change some (not necessarily a great deal) by the 'life' they've had. I am bothered by characters that never change, never 'learn lessons' and never seem to 'age'.
However, I don't want a character changing so rapidly that he/she appears to have multiple personalities if I have skipped two or three books in the series either.

Kathleen Ernst said...

OK, I'm back! Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I really appreciate hearing your opinions.

I think most of us agree that a protagonist doesn't have to change a lot; it's more a case of reacting to the experiences that come within the book. The change can be subtle--in fact, perhaps that's ideal in a long-running series.

What an interesting discussion!

Kathleen Ernst said...

I'm going to toss out one more thought - I love it when an internal/emotional issue a character may be dealing with ends up being reflected in the mystery plot, which may have initially seemed to have no connection. Tricky to do, but oh-so-satisfying to read!

I've been able to do this to varying degrees myself in my Chloe Ellefson series. In the new book, The Heirloom Murders, Chloe is trying to figure out which of 2 very different guys might be the right one for her. The mystery plot includes a couple of threads that reflect that question.

Pat Batta said...

Life goes on. Situations change. People adapt. My readers tell me they want to know what is happening next in Marge, my main character's, life as well as what kind of trouble she is going to get into.

I guess if you are portraying a macho superhero (or the female equivalent) change would not happen. But if, like me, you are trying to write about realistic people that readers can relate to, their lives have to progress as real people's do.

Anonymous said...

I usually read a series because I love the characters. To keep on caring about them, I hope they will grow, but slowly please.

boots9k at wowway dot com

Kathleen Ernst said...

"I hope they will grow, but slowly please"--good summary! Huge changes could be jarring.

Someone earlier mentioned the balancing act of fitting the individual book arcs within a larger series arc. Gradual growth and change in each title, if done well, can over time create a satisfying and realistic series.

Vickie said...

I think the character should grow and change as the series progresses. They face different deli as in each book so they in turn grow stronger and knowledgeable.

Robin Allen said...

I agree that learning lessons is important, but how many of us have to learn the same lesson over and over? After a certain age, we just don't change that much, so I think it's okay for a character to stay steadily the same. Her circumstances may change, but she's still the same person readers connect with.

Marja McGraw said...

In "real life" people change and grow. I'm no spring chicken, and yet I still learn and change as new situations arise. I expect the same when I read a series. If I don't see growth, I move on to a new series where I won't be bored. Just my humble opinion.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I certainly agree that the character should not learn the same lesson over and over. I do hope that I can keep giving Chloe some new personal element to explore in each book, which would give her new room to grow in each. (Since I'm only working on Book 3, that may be easier said than done, but that's my goal.)

Elizabeth J said...

Personally, I prefer books populated by characters that I care about. I like characters are allowed to grow and change. If I read a series out of order, or start in the middle of a series, it's easy to catch up and get into the story if I am interested in the character--it's like spending time with an old friend.

pennyt said...

I vote for characters that change and grow over time like we all do. All of the mystery series I can think of that I've read and enjoyed showed character growth through the books and that's part of why I read them. Interesting question and discussion!! Thank you.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for chiming in. I agree that it's important to find the right balance in terms of letting readers pick up a book out of order. (Most of us prefer to read in order, but it's not always possible, I know.) With just a bit of carefully-worded explanation, I think it's possible to bring readers up to speed.

Vickie said...

I can't imagine how a character could NOT change in a book, let alone in a series. Not be leaps and bounds, but things happen to us to cause to at least minutely alter how we do or feel things. That has to show in a book.

Paula Petty said...

Characters should grow. That makes it real. As far as change is concerned, any changes need to stay in character. We grow to love a character--strengths and weaknesses.

Fran Stewart said...

The two people (speaker and moderator) who didn't like change were both men. Somebody told me years ago that women expect men to change -- and they never do. Men expect women to stay the same -- and they never do.

Of course my characters grow and evolve as the series goes on. I'm bored silly by absolutely predictable books where the protag never learns. I'd be bored silly writing a series like that, too.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks so much for the great conversation today! I need to sign out for the evening. If anyone is attending Bouchercon, please say hi.

Beth Groundwater said...

Fran,
I love that saying! How true. All of your comments have been very interesting--and Kathleen's going to have a lot of names to draw from to pick that book winner. :)

If you don't see this post until tomorrow, don't let that deter you from adding your thoughts!

cyn209 said...

i LOVE coming across another mystery!!!! thank you for this giveaway!!! i'll be looking out for The Heirloom Murders!!!

cyn209(AT)juno(DOT)com

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

When I read, as well as when I write, I become so involved with the characters that I am pulled right into the story. But, the characters must be "real" in order for me to stay engaged. I believe they should be dynamic, transformed by the circumstances and experiences they have. That's how real life works. If characters don't age, grow wiser, and change, they aren't believable, and I don't want to read about them.

M Ruth Myers said...

Susan Boyer raised an excellent point about personal growth and change being in part a product of a character's maturity. Still, we should all be able to learn things, albeit reluctantly.

I see more of a need for a story arc throughout a series than I do for a significant self-discovery by the detective in each book.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for giving me so much to think about, and thanks to Beth for the hospitality.

I'm on the road today, but will do the giveaway prize drawing this evening. Happy reading!

Christine Husom said...

With each life event and passage of time itself, we grow and change, and so should our characters if we want them to come alive for ourselves, the authors, and for our readers. it's only natural. Good post, thanks!

Nancy Sweetland said...

Hi, Kathleen - you certainly roused a lot of comments; guess your question pushed a lot of buttons! I don't think it's realistic for a character to change personality, but certainly should react with more maturity of wisdom as each situation arises. Congratulstions on your new book!

Kathleen Ernst said...

OK! The book giveaway winner was Vickie from Bella Vista AR. Vickie, I'll contact you directly.

zoey said...

I can think of one should learn from mistakes and there shouldn't any change in a character.