If you’re thinking about creating a series character, my advice would be to tread very carefully. In my creative writing classes I advise my students to create comprehensive character sketches of each character before starting to write. This is not to say that these sketches are etched in stone. They merely provide a framework upon which to build your story. Just be aware that sometimes the best laid plans tend to change over time.
Let’s take a look at the masters. Robert B. Parker’s long run on the Spenser series is regarded as one of the most successful series in mystery fiction. It’s even continued after his death. Ace Atkins, who took over the series, put a reference to Parker’s passing in Lullaby, when Hawk mentions to Spenser that he left, but has now returned. Atkins has done an admirable job keeping all the characters that Parker created alive and well in the new books, but I wonder if he realized that the great man himself actually fudged one small detail. In the first novel in the series Spenser, whose first name we never find out, makes mention of the smell of fresh baked bread reminds him of his mother’s baking. In subsequent books toward the end of the series, Spenser confides to his lady-love, Susan Silverman, that his mother died quite early in his life and he was raised by men. He also mentions a Wyoming upbringing in some novels, but people make fun of his Boston accent in others. Obviously, when you write over thirty books in the same series, and they’re all very good novels, you deserve a little slack.
Sue Grafton made Kinsey an orphan, raised by her highly independent, feminist leaning aunt, who taught the intrepid private eye to shoot and be self-sufficient. Grafton tried introducing some cousins of Kinsey in a couple novels, but they weren’t well received. She later said she regretted that move and wrote them out of future books.
The great John D. MacDonald waited until the 21st Travis McGee novel to introduce McGee’s daughter in The Lonely Silver Rain. It was his last book, although rumors abound that he was working on the next one at the time of his death. That’s one manuscript I’d love to finish for him, but I doubt his estate will ever give another writer the chance. Perhaps that’s best, too. There was only one John D. MacDonald, and the final novel caps the series the best way possible: it leaves the next chapter to the faithful reader’s imagination. MacDonald was careful about introducing “family” for McGee. He waited until the fifth book, Darker Than Amber, to introduce Meyer, who was as close to family as Travis thought he’d ever get. MacDonald had a few other characters who appeared in more than one book in the series, but most of them involved Travis and his current lady love, whom the faithful readers knew would be gone by the next book.
For my own series character, Chicago-based private eye Ron Shade, I had a whole cast of secondary characters ready to go before I wrote word one. Ron is pretty much estranged from his biological family, his much-older brother, Tom, and his dad, who is never mentioned in the books. I made Ron the product of a second marriage on the part of his father to explain the age difference (nineteen years) between the two brothers. Shade has a surrogate family that serves him well. George Grieves, a Marine Corps buddy of Shade’s older brother, serves as sort of a big brother for Ron, and Ron’s trainer, Chappie Oliver, is Shade’s surrogate father. I marvel how the masters like Parker and both John D. and Ross MacDonald could keep their series going for so many books. My Shade series is currently at four, but he’s been on temporary hiatus for a while now. I often wondered on the ideal number of books for a series and came up with the number 6. I started a new Shade novel a couple years back, but had to put it on the shelf until I get a few of my current projects completed. But you can be sure of one thing: Shade will be back someday, and his surrogate family will be there waiting for him.
You can chose your friends, someone once told me, but you can’t choose your family. This is true enough, except when it comes to plotting out the flow chart for your series characters. So choose wisely and use a pencil rather than an indelible marker.