Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time flies...or crawls...in a series

Sandra Parshall

How old is your favorite series character? What year does she/he live in?

I won’t be surprised if those questions
have you stumped.

Sometimes I think even the authors are a little vague about these details. The question of how to – or whether to – age a protagonist over the course of a series is one that a lot of writers wrestle with. That problem goes hand in hand with the dilemma of passing time.

A year or more usually goes by between publication of books in a series. A year has passed in the lives of writer and readers. But has a year passed in the characters’ lives? Or have they cruised out of one dangerous mess and right into the next? Sue Grafton took the latter route, with the result that her Kinsey Milhone is still living in the 1980s, when the first books in the series were published.

If we want our characters to move ahead in real time, that means we have to
address their ages. Or do we? Janet Evanovich thinks not. She has declared that Stephanie Plum will be 31 forever. Ed McBain published his first 87th Precinct novel in 1956 and the last one in 2005, but although the times changed in the stories, Carella, Hawes, Meyer, Kling and the rest of the gang stayed on the job at pretty much the same ages. If sales are the best indication, I’d say readers didn’t mind at all.

It’s easy enough to pin down the year if the books are historical and make use of actual events, but those of us who set our stories in “the present” often avoid naming a specific year because we’re afraid future readers will feel they’re reading old news. So the actual year may be kept vague, and we walk a fine line between sounding current and sounding dated. Slang and technology are our banes. In this fickle society, what’s in today may be out and forgotten by the time the book is published.

We also have to be careful about dropping real national and international events into our stories. Many series characters live in a little bubble, as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Sometimes, though, an event changes the world so profoundly that we can’t entirely ignore it in fiction. The multiple-front terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, doesn’t have to be mentioned by name, but we must acknowledge the hassle our characters now face when they travel – no last-minute dashes to airline counters for tickets, followed by quick boardings – and the security cameras and metal detectors in many public buildings.

If the development of a romantic relationship is a major part of a series, the writer has no choice but to slow things down. Readers want the details, they want to share the experience. They don’t want to suddenly jump ahead a year and discover the hero and heroine are now an old married couple with a baby. Deborah Crombie has handled her characters especially well, letting Duncan and Gemma fall in love and create a life together in more or less real time. Their constant involvement in crime is believable because they're police detectives. With amateur detectives, slowing down the personal life leads to a variation of Cabot Cove Syndrome on the crime front: why is this woman falling over a dead body every three weeks?

I’ve faced all these problems (except the marriage and baby) in my Rachel
Goddard books.

I didn’t write The Heat of the Moon with the thought that it would be first in a series. The story took possession of my heart and imagination, and all I thought about was following Rachel through her journey of discovery. Selling it took several years. Then I discovered that, whether I had intended to or not, I was writing a series. The Heat of the Moon has one reference in it that firmly sets the story in a particular year, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d killed that darling. I’ve had to be vague about years and ages in the subsequent books, although when people ask how much fictional time passed between the first and second, I always say about three years. Then they ask why I didn’t write a book (or two) about those years in Rachel’s life. You can see the kind of trouble writers create for themselves when they’re too specific.

Do you think about the passage of time when you read a series? Does it bother you if you don’t know a character’s exact age? Which writers do you think have handled these issues especially well?

And all of you writers out there -- How are you handling your characters' ages and the passage of time in your books? Why did you decide to do it that way?

19 comments:

kathy d. said...

FYI: Sue Grafton's character is Kinsey Millhone, Marcia Muller's is Sharon McCone. Both are good series and I'd also throw Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski into the women private investigators' mix.

Susan D said...

Well, I always know exactly how old Kinsey Milhone is at any given moment, since she and I were born on the same day. Somehow, she still gets to be in her 30s (my mental age) while I have grown relentlessly older.

On the other hand, she's stuck in the Eighties, while I get to enjoy the finer things in life, such as grandchildren and retirement and any book written in the past 20 years.

Susan D said...

Suspension of disbelief and math is the only way....

I think Agatha Christie bemoaned the fact that Hecule Poirot was retired from the Brussels Police Force when he first appeared in the middle of WWI. And Miss Marple was definitely old in the 1930s. Both continued to solve mysteries until the 1970s.

Susan D said...

Hercule!

Sorry.

Sheila Connolly said...

I had to impose a real-world calendar on my Orchard series because it revolves around (surprise) an orchard. The first four books run from winter (dormancy) through harvest in one year. The one I'm working on is set in December, and after that I'm not sure--but it will be within months.

Assigning an age to our main characters is tricky. I wonder if anyone has done a poll comparing the age of the writer to the age of their protagonist? Or do we base it on the assumed age of our readers?

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, have you noticed how many female mystery protagonists are in their thirties? Male and female, that seems to be the most common age range. I can see some reasons why. If a protagonist is a cop, she/he has to be 30 or older to be a seasoned detective. (Many police departments won't even let cops apply to move up to detective until they've been in uniform a certain number of years.) If the character is an amateur, and the writer wants her to have a profession and the maturity to solve crimes, a few extra years may seem necessary.

Karen Russell said...

As a reader, I don't care which route the author takes as long as they're consistent. Reading pretty much always involves some degree of suspension of belief, and this is a relatively minor issue -- unless the author does something really awkward that makes me stop and think about the passing of time.

Gayle Feyrer said...

I agree with Karen, if the author is consistent, it doesn't matter to me too much one way or the other. I do like to see the characters develop rather than remain the same, in general. I mean, who needs Miss Marple to develop? I'm writing an historical (series, please) and plan to use real events and age the characters, but only slightly.

Sandra Parshall said...

I like protagonists whose lives change, and that's hard when no time is passing. Elizabeth George has introduced huge changes into the lives of her set of characters -- and that's the reason so many readers say they read the books mainly to find out what's happening to Tommy, Havers, etc. (When is Havers ever going to find a good man?) I don't think anyone read the Miss Marple books to see what was going on in Miss Marple's life. :-) Very different types of books.

Some Golden Agers let time pass in their books. Look at all that happened in Peter Wimsey's life in the course of the series.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, so interesting! Yes, when I'm writing, I think it matters...because the character is such a real person.
But when I'm reading a novel, you now make me realize, I hardly think about it at all.

PS to authors: I learned, almost the hard way! to keep track of such things...In book one of my series, the main charater is 46. In book four, which is a year and a half later, she was almost still 46. Whoa. I instantly assigned everyone an actual birthday.

Diane said...

I think age progression doesn't matter a lot to the reader - in general. Carola Dunn has two mystery series set at two different times. One post WWI, and Daisy's life does progress, but you never really know her age, though she is young. Her new series takes place in a small village in Cornwall & environs, and when I read the first, from references, I thought '1960s'. The last one upped it to possibly the '70s. Not time progression, but my not getting the right decade the first time. Jacqueline Winspear's Daisy Dobbs does age a bit, but that is a deep part of her journey of growning and healing after the traumas of WWI. Remember the really old mysteries where the year was given as 19__? I suspect it was thought this wouldn't date them.

Priscilla said...

When Rebus retired, I grieved for days! On the other hand, I like characters who age because they evolve in their thinking and have to get creative about how to catch the perps. No more dropping three stories in a speeding car and walking away with a minor bruise!Characters who do not age feel plastic to me, but that's just my taste. I age mine but the current six books span only 4 years so I can have the best of both worlds...

Sandra Parshall said...

Priscilla, I felt the same way about Rebus. I didn't want to see him get old and tired and shuffle off into the sunset. I would have been happy if Rankin had slowed time down in that series and let Rebus stay at his best (such as it was) a little longer. But I think in that case the author was ready to move on, and that was his choice to make.

Alyx Morgan said...

My YA series has my heroine in her 16th year. The crimes/books will happen one month after the other. I think that will give me enough time for her to age a bit. &, while I write the dates on my timeline - so I can manage the series of events easier - I use very few of those dates when I describe events in the book.

I figure, if I'm fortunate enough to have all that I'm planning published, it'll give readers quite a few years of books & then I can "retire" her when she graduates high school.

Lesley Diehl said...

I always think about time lapse when I'm reading a eries. Sue grafton shose to handle it , as you remarked, by keeping her characgter in the 1980s. Sometimes I like that, but sometimes I do not. I'm just beginning series novels so I don't quite know what to do, but some of the issues confronting my progtagonists dictate the time frame.

Diane Vallere said...

When writing, it feels natural to age the characters. They need to show some kind of growth from murder to murder (though when reading I often wish I knew what they were doing in those gaps in time between books!).

And by placing them in their 30s, often times they have a past that's not *too* muddy, and enough of a future that anything is still possible.

Robert Fate said...

Kristin Van Dijk was seventeen on the first page of Baby Shark, and nineteen at the end of the book. Book one began in October 1952. Book four, Jugglers at the Border, began in October 1958. Book five, with luck, will be published in 2011 with the story beginning in 1960. Kristen will be twenty-five at the beginning of book five. Since I started a series writing for a seventeen-year-old, I had no choice in reference to her aging. In the stories, someone always asks or challenges Kristin’s age, but, if the series continues, I can imagine a time when age will no longer be an issue. I am enjoying the casual mention of current social events, and find that many of my readers say they like that, too. The 50’s may seem a long time ago to many, but there are still a lot of us who remember that era. I suspect even more will remember the sixties and that’s where Kristin is heading.

Warmest regards, Sandra. Thank you for always introducing interesting topics.

Jeri Westerson said...

I agree with Diane Vallere. It's a natural thing to age the characters. And I thought long and hard about what age Crispin would be in 1384. He was supposed to be in the prime of his life at his fall from grace which would put him at 23 then and 30 when the books begin. The idea was to see his life progressing--or regressing--for the next sixteen years, a new year for each book. The dynamic of Jack and Crispin as they aged and how that affects their relationship is most intriguing as a writer.

Pat Batta said...

I had to start the Marge Christensen Mystery Series in the late 90's, because Marge charges to the airline gate without a ticket, and her contribution to her IRA as a non-working spouse was $250 a year. At the same time, I wanted her to be in her forties, because life begins at 40 doesn't it? But if she isn't going to fall across a dead body every few weeks, and since I want the series to move to a more current time, she is in danger of aging quickly. Sooo, I've moved each book ahead a few years without really addressing Marge's age. Hope it works.