The Challenges of Writing a Series by Alex Callister

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Alex Callister

Alex Callister

Alex Callister, author of the Winter Series, discusses the challenges in writing a series with the same lead character.

The question I get asked more than any other (apart from when the next book is coming) is:

Where do you get all your ideas?

And what they are really asking is: how do you manage to think up so many stories about the same person?

Like most questions involving writing there is a long answer and a short answer, and the short answer is: easily. I know everything Winter is going to do and say in any given situation. Plots therefore arise naturally from her inevitable reactions to an outside threat – be it a torture website or a contract killer. As soon as I know what the threat is, I know how she will react. And the dark web provides plenty of real life inspiration.

I’m in the foothills of series writers, though, with a paltry five Winter books to my name. How do the giants manage? Lee Child has written twenty-four Jack Reacher books, JD Robb a mighty fifty-seven about Eve Dallas. How do they keep each book new and different after so many? Here’s the answer, and it’s a secret that’s not really a secret, since it’s hiding in plain sight.

They don’t need to.

People don’t want fresh and new. They want familiar problems and a mythic hero to solve them. The same story told in a different way.

Winter NightMy plots are all dark web based, but fundamentally they are the same stories as Ian Fleming was writing back in the fifties – a threat to world peace is overcome by a larger-than-life hero. My modern-day Bond fights virtual monsters – pay per view torture sites, contract kill sites rather than someone stealing nuclear missiles or trying to start a new civilisation in space, but it is still the same character and the same story. We even both have a Spectre-style organisation trying to take over the world (global domination never gets old). As Lord Vetinari says in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth, ‘People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things…They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds.’

Winter (and Jack Reacher and Eve Dallas) are pretty conventional versions of the mythic hero. But these days, as the nature of the threat has changed (less sword fighting and more deduction) so has the hero. Miss Marple is the perfect example. She is the Nemesis in the 1971 book of the same name, a woollen-clad soldier of justice delivering unflinching retribution. Whatever form our soldier of justice takes, readers get very attached to them and their idiosyncrasies: Bond is shaken not stirred, Poirot is Belgian not French, Holmes lives in Baker St and wears a deerstalker, Miss Marple lives in St Mary Mead and wears cardigans, Jack Reacher lives nowhere and carries only a toothbrush. Along with excellent writing (of course), the key to an enduring series character lies in these little inconsequential details. As readers we are already very familiar with the idea of a hero. It is the personal detail however small, that makes each incarnation ‘real’ and forges the bond with the reader that creates a kind of fondness.

We are the ‘Box Set Generation’ and always want more of familiar well-loved characters, and it is even worse for the writer. After five books, Winter has a life of her own. She is more real to me than 99% of the people I know, and this creates a problem. I have spent six years writing Winter. I can’t bear for anything to happen to her. If the plot required me to kill her off, I wouldn’t be able to.

I’m not alone. At crime writer conventions where authors huddle together at the bar discussing the craft, we split into groups – those of us that write the same main character and those that invent a whole new cast every book. One very well known author is convinced his detective stands behind him while he writes, passing comment. Another, challenged on why her detective had suddenly developed a cross dressing habit said, in all seriousness, ‘because he told me it was something he was in to.’

Writers hear voices and none more so than the writers of the same character. Agatha Christie came to loathe Poirot calling him “insufferable” and a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep” but she is the exception. Lee Child talking to Andy Martin said, ‘Remember, I’m not making this up. Reacher is real. He exists…That’s why I can’t change anything – this is just the way it is.’

  • Perhaps that is the greatest challenge for writers of series – holding their main characters at arm’s length, lest the writers become like Gollum with the ring of power and fall forever under their spell.

(c) Alex Callister

About Winter Night:

Winter NightSex, violence, murder, betrayal, revenge and a kick-ass unstoppable heroine with one big Achilles’ heel. That would be Winter. She’s been having kind of a bad week…

Firestorm 2, the plot to mine data from the infamous murder-for-hire website, has been a success. But while Winter’s been held prisoner by Alek after saving his life, GCHQ has been ordering hits to eliminate every contractor on the site – and leaked footage of Alek and Winter together means she’s now public enemy number one.

Michael is driven by a mission; haunted by the memory of Aleksey, he must find Natalya and return Aleksey’s ring to gain some closure. But his goal is hampered by a gruesome billion-pound hit which is suddenly, very publicly, on his head. Still, at least he has Aveline in his corner – unless she’s been lying to him all along.

Brilliantly narrated by the award-winning Ell Potter, the fifth instalment of the Winter series is an electrifying thriller which poses the question: when the good guys are still killers and the bad guys are in love with you, who can you trust?

Can you ever really know what lies in another person’s heart?

Do you want to find out?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alex Callister is author of the Winter Series, five books starring a Bond-like GCHQ agent called Winter. The first book WINTER DARK was Audible’s Thriller of the Year.

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