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Louise Penny Master Class: Creating series-worthy characters

In her fifth blog, the Canadian crime maven reflects on what it takes to build a sleuth worthy of a series—and her own winning formula for Inspector Gamache.

Here’s my belief: a series lives or dies by its characters. Plot is important, but readers return to a series because they adore the characters. They fall in love with Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks. They want Gail Bowen’s great creation Joanne Kilbourn as a friend and confident. They worry about Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal.  

A bond develops, and not a trivial one, between a reader and a character. Especially if you, as a writer, respect your creations.  

And the fact is, most publishers want you to write recurring characters. That way you build a following. Indeed, many publishers will give a new writer a three-book contract in order to build a series. Few people will probably buy your first book, but if it’s good, there’s word-of-mouth. Then more people buy the second. And by the third, they know if it’s going to have a long life.

A lot of elements go in to making a series a success, but without a compelling main character, you have very little chance. Now, compelling doesn’t mean a grab bag of ticks and idiosyncrasies. That grows tired quickly.  

Compelling can be a deeply attractive character, like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Or a vile characters like Hannibal Lector.    

The making of Armande Gamache

Can I tell you how I created my main character, Armand Gamache?  

It was a mistake. I’d initially wanted Clara and Peter Morrow to be the main characters.  An updating of the Thin Man series. It would be a series of books featuring these amateur detectives, who’d have the help of a Sûreté du Québec homicide detective. Chief Inspector Gamache.

Now, Gamache was a puzzlement to me. Initially he was to be in his mid-thirties. In a bad marriage. He’d have some sort of addiction. He’d be a man at odds with himself. Deeply unhappy.  

It seemed, after a short perusal of the current literature, the sort of cop who was popular. And since I wanted my books to be popular, that seemed a sensible way to go.

But then I read that Agatha Christie had grown to despise her greatest creation, Hercule Poirot. She hated his company, and yet was stuck with him.  

And I became frightened. Suppose I was lucky enough to be published? Suppose this first book becomes a series? Suppose my dreams came true… and I was stuck with the unhappy Monsieur Gamache for the rest of my life?

I took another look, then tossed him away. I stopped worrying about what the publishers might want. Stopped worrying about market forces. And started creating characters whose company I’d enjoy. From Clara and Peter, to the other villagers. And Chief Inspector Gamache.

I finally had a chance to play God: why not create people whose company I’d not tire of? Even the demented, drunken old poet, Ruth.  

Every decision I made about character was selfish. The first book was written for only one reader. Me. And the characters were created to keep one person company. Me.  

As I wrote, Peter and Clara remained, but Chief Inspector Gamache stepped from the pages so whole, so compelling, that he became the focus.   

Sleuth-building 101

I tell you this story for a reason: when creating a main series character, there are many questions you must ask yourself. There are no right or wrong answers. It’s about being honest with yourself, and getting to know yourself and the book you want to write. Not for your mother. Not for your spouse. But one that’s a true reflection of you. Your beliefs, your values, your experiences. What gives you pleasure. What angers you.  

You must ask if you’ll be writing in the first or third person. Whether you’ll have one point-of-view or the omniscient. Whether your main character is a man or woman, young or old. What race? Hobbies? Education? Temperament?

I got out recipe cards and wrote what each character’s cardinal qualities were:  

  • Kind
  • Passionate
  • Creative
  • Jealous
  • Impatient

Each character had some good and some not-so-good qualities. Like us.

I wrote down a bit of their physical description, too:  

  • Overweight
  • Unkempt greying hair
  • Walks with limp
  • Mid-sixties

And then I walked around for several months with them in my head. And slowly, as I saw them more clearly, heard them interact, watched their movements, they migrated. So that they were still in my head, but also in my heart.  

I could see them, but I could also feel them.

And then I was ready to write.  

There are a number of other things to consider. Will your main character really be able to anchor a series? Can they evolve? (I think one of the reasons Christie grew weary of Poirot was her own fault. He never developed. He was the same man in the 1970s as he was in the 1920s.)

You don’t need to know where your characters are going, only that they can evolve.   

If you care about your characters, flaws and all, so will your readers. And they’ll return.  

*****

Read Louise's other master class posts: 

Louise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including the New York Times, the London Times and the Globe and Mail.




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