by John Perich
We are delighted to welcome novelist John Perich as our guest.
John's second mystery featuring Mara Cunningham — Boston's most dangerous photographer — is Too Hard To Handle (CreateSpace, October 2012 trade paperback and ebook formats).
Today John tells us what makes a great series protagonist.
— ♦ —
Jack Reacher. Jane Rizzoli. Harry Bosch. Stephanie Plum. Thriller readers like a good adventure, but they fall in love with a strong series protagonist. Make a character who's believable, entertaining, and memorable, and you have a series that readers will snap up as fast as they can find them. But the series protagonist is hardly a modern invention: readers have been falling in love with recurring heroes since James Bond, Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, and Sherlock Holmes.
Photo provided courtesy of
What is it that makes a series protagonist stick, though? A struggling writer or curious reader could find plenty of essays, lists, or tutorials on how to write strong characters. But some protagonists seem a natural fit for a series while others don't. What compels the reader to come back for more? What (besides the author's name on the jacket) gets fans excited about further adventures?
As a lifelong reader of mysteries and thrillers, I think I've landed on three essential elements that turn an interesting character into a series protagonist. I've put these elements into practice with my own series protagonist, crimefighting photographer Mara Cunningham, heroine of Too Close to Miss and Too Hard to Handle. I'll walk through the list with some examples, both from my books and others.
Larger Than Life …
Every novel except the truly psychedelic demands some level of believability. Realism is especially key in thrillers, where the reader's ability to place themselves in the protagonist's skin is what injects the thrills. But at some point, realism must be discarded in favor of making a larger-than-life protagonist. The protagonist has to be bigger than the limits the readers face in daily living — keener of mind, stronger of will.
In the modern era, Jack Reacher is one of the best examples of this. He's not just big, he's unbelievably strong, capable of killing a man in a bear hug or breaking someone's neck with a punch. He's also supremely analytical, capable of getting a good read on someone's personality and behavior with just a few clues. As a super-detective, Reacher harkens back to the era of Sherlock Holmes, who could deduce a suspect's physique, profession, and attitude from just a few splashes of mud or piles of cigar ash.
Despite the gritty tone of both novels, Mara Cunningham certainly has some larger than life aspects. She's a very capable fighter, taking on larger and better-armed attackers in Too Hard to Handle. She also sustains a great deal of punishment in Too Close to Miss, yet still presses on. This, I suspect, is what endears readers to Mara: her pursuit of justice, even in the face of obstacles that would make most of us chicken out.
A Sense of Place …
You can't have a good novel without a strong setting, either a real place that readers might recognize or a fantastic location that's painted vividly enough to transport them. But with series protagonists, this is sometimes trickier. Often, the star of a series bounces from one place to the next. If the hero stays in the same locale, keeping the setting fresh in story after story can prove a challenge.
For heroes who travel around the world, the places they visit have to be interesting, depicted with color and a sense of adventure. The James Bond series is perhaps the best example of this, with the titular MI6 superspy jaunting from France to the Bahamas, from Jamaica to Japan. Even series protagonists who stay closer to home have to visit different segments of the same setting: high society and the gutters, cozy homes and glossy skyscrapers. Philip Marlowe covered every inch of Los Angeles, and was just as likely to visit a posh mansion in the hills as he was a seedy flophouse with peeling wallpaper.
Either way, the challenge is still to keep the setting vivid, no matter how many adventures the protagonist has. Mara Cunningham may spend all her time in New England, but it's such a broad swath of New England that any type of adventure could present itself. In Too Close to Miss, she finds herself in tony Back Bay brownstones, desolate shacks in western Massachusetts, and a lonely cabin on a New Hampshire lake. By seeing the same heroine in a variety of settings, the reader gets a chance to see a familiar character in a new light.
Change Over Time …
This last element transports a series character from good to great: the ability to develop over the course of the series. Often this change comes as personal growth, where a hero confronts her demons, builds relationships, and learns maturity. Sometimes this change is tragic, however, where a hero loses the things most dear and has to dig deep for untapped sources of strength.
Mickey Haller, first appearing in Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, is an excellent example. He starts off as a shyster, cruising for jackpot clients in his Lincoln during the day and drinking hard at night. As his adventures continue, however, he grows more jaded with the seedy nature of his clients, and even takes on the role of the prosecution in one book. Jane Rizzoli, one half of Tess Gerritsen's famous Rizzoli and Isles duo, has definitely grown over time. From her debut as an impulsive troublemaker in The Surgeon, she's since married, had a child, and dealt with her parents' divorce. None of this has silenced her aggressive nature, to the delight of her fans.
Though Mara Cunningham has only had two adventures so far, readers have already noted changes in her personality and relationships. In Too Close to Miss, she was sleeping with a married man and pushing away friends who showed concern. In Too Hard to Handle, she's started to reconcile her troubled relationship with her family, particularly her criminal older brother. Future Mara Cunningham novels will see her settle into a serious relationship and take responsibility for her career. Some of Mara's choices may be satisfying, others heartbreaking, but my hope is that readers feel they're organic and believable.
To Be Continued …
Every good series leaves the door open for another adventure, and every good blog post leaves room for discussion. Do your favorite series protagonists share these elements? Is there anything essential I missed? Please let me know what you think!
— ♦ —
When he's not working at his day job, teaching jiu-jitsu, or blogging about pop culture, John Perich can be found writing gritty crime thrillers set in New England. Learn more about him and his work on his website, PeriscopeDepth.com.
— ♦ —
Too Hard To Handle
A Mara Cunningham Mystery (2nd in series)
The last time Mara Cunningham saw her older brother Jimmy was ten years ago, when he jumped bail after robbing a bank in Salem. Tonight, he showed up on surveillance footage at the scene of a police officer's murder.
Now every cop in Boston wants his head. Every gangster in the city wants the money he stole. And Mara wants answers to the questions Jimmy ran from. But she'll have to find him first.
Too bad Jimmy Cunningham has plans of his own …