Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Conundrum of Successful Characters

Like most writers I know (perhaps most HUMANS), I am a fan of Robert Parker. I'm not particular, either. Naturally, I started with Spenser, but I love Sunny Randall and I'll take Jesse Stone. Since Parker published his first Spenser novel when I was 8 and seems to have put out a new book approximately every 14 minutes for several years, I still sometimes discover novels I haven't yet read. I'm always delighted when that happens, and I couldn't have been more delighted when I discovered that I'd never read the very FIRST Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript.

I brought it home, dove right in, and....didn't like it.

Now, this happens sometimes: I'll read one or two books by an author and get all swept away, and then I'll pick up another and be disappointed. But I'd hazard a guess that I've read between 25 and 30 Robert Parker novels, and I enjoyed them all.

The thing is, in The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser wasn't yet the character he is today. He didn't HAVE the character he has today. When people told him that he wasn't as amusing as he thought he was, they were right. And he drank too much and didn't make very good decisions. I didn't like him all that much.

Obviously, over time, his character evolved; undoubtedly, when Parker turned out that first novel, he didn't know that Spenser would become a cultural icon. If I hadn't been 8 years old when this book came out, if it had been the first Spenser novel I ever read, I'm not sure that I would ever have discovered the others.

But something else jumped out at me that made even more of an impression than the evolution of the character. Spenser described himself, in 1973, as "approaching 40". That was 36 years ago, which has the man currently "approaching 76". Of course, that's glossed over--his character remains perpetually middle-aged, as he must if Parker is going to continue to crank out those books (and I hope he does). But an author gets into a bit of a bind when he announces an age like that. It's important to character development, sure, but who thinks, when he's describing a character, "I'm going to have to have this guy viable in a street fight 36 years from now"? I'm guessing no one--and suspecting that if anyone did, it would paralyze his writing and pretty much ensure that his character didn't have this kind of longevity issue.

But it raises an interesting issue for fiction writers. Should we expect our characters to take on lives of their own and move beyond the plans we have for them? And if so, how do we keep their options open while still fitting them into the stories we've woven?