Spy Novels and Reintroducing Characters

January 26th, 2010 • Kate

DefectorI finished reading Daniel Silva‘s latest Gabriel Allon thriller The Defector last night, and I wanted to talk about it. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know I don’t represent thrillers, but I do enjoy reading them, and Silva is one of those authors I like to keep up with.

With a multi-book series like this, though, I think the author can run the risk of boring readers with long, detailed descriptions of characters they’ve met before, in previous books. I’m not saying I was bored, exactly (and that may be because in Silva’s books, I don’t have a hard time keeping track of the important characters — Gabriel, Chiara, Shamron — and I don’t mind forgetting about the others), but I felt like if I had the previous book in front of me at the same time as The Defector, I could easily flip to similar descriptions the last time these characters were introduced.

Don’t get me wrong — it needs to be done somehow. As a writer, you can’t assume that every reader will work their way through your entire oeuvre. Some may come to you midway through a series, and you have to make some new introductions, even while your faithful readers are standing nearby at the cocktail party that is your book, saying to themselves, “Yes, I know who that is, we’ve met before, get back to your story!”

I’m remembering another author’s series where I read two books in close succession, and I noticed word-for-word repeats of character description. You have to find the middle ground that works for you — that keeps your longtime readers engaged, and doesn’t leave your newer readers clueless.

Those of you that are writing series certainly need to be aware of this, but it’s useful information for all writers. Even if you don’t NEED to find different ways to introduce your characters, can you? And (nod to this off-color but dead-on review of The Phantom Menace) can you do it without describing what they look like, what they’re wearing, or what their job or “role” is?

Try it with some of your favorite characters! I’ll give you one to start with: Spencer Martin. Ok, go!

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13 Responses to “Spy Novels and Reintroducing Characters”

  1. Christie Says:

    I remember that phenomenon from reading the Babysitter's Club books as a kid. I read and loved every single one, but the character descriptions became painfully familiar. I habitually skipped several pages as the characters were introduced. With the number of books in the series, though, I'm sure a fresh description would have been very difficult for each one.

  2. Kater Says:

    I like to vary it by having the same characters described through the eyes of new characters. That way you do two jobs at once.

  3. Tim White Says:

    "Frank Hardy pulled the dark sweater over his dark hair – the same color as his Mother's…he looked over at his fair-haired brother Joe."

    Some variation of that in every book! Aieee!

  4. Molly Says:

    Scarlett glanced around, trying to adjust her eyes to the lack of light in the Orchid Suite. She heard her brother's hushed whisper, and finally found him due to the contrast of his skin compared to the rest of the room. "Spencer- What?"

    "Shh! Here." he tossed Scarlett her bathrobe, and crept to the door. "It's time."

    I always find characters so difficult to describe more than once, without their description sounding like something plucked from a paperback romance novel. *sigh*

  5. Shannon Says:

    LOL that entire youtube series (1-7) are amazing. I ran into them a few weeks ago searching the SFWA website. He hits it dead on, IMO.

    Umbridge. She was described so well the first time that, for me, just the name is enough to put a picture in my head. Any marked changes in her description would be all I would need to know from that point on.

    JMO, but decribing what they like, fetishes, etc. helps with the picture of the person. Again, Umbridge. Kittens, pink, doilies, bows.

  6. De Says:

    Or the love scenes in the Jean Auel books. It was the same scene every time!

  7. BowlerIn10A Says:

    I think it can be done situationally:

    Scarlett asks, "Hey, Spencer, can I borrow 20 bucks?"

    Spencer replies, holding out a bill, "If I give you this 20 dollar bill, you have to promise that you will only use it to buy me new tires for my unicycle. Or something equally important."

    Scarlett says, "Thanks, Spence! That's why you're my favorite brother!"

    Spencer walks out of the room, but slams himself into the doorframe. He shakes it off like Chester Cheetah, and goes on his merry way.

    And now we know that Spencer is Scarlett's brother, and is fun and wacky, but watches out for his sister.

  8. Holen Says:

    Nancy Drew's housekeeper, Hannah, was introduced almost the exact same way in each book.

    Still, I miss reading those *runs to shelf to see if she still has any left*

  9. Kate Says:

    Neato — you guys are going somewhere with this I hadn't expected. When I proposed that you try describing Spencer without talking about his looks, clothing, or job/role, I meant in general comments, not in narrative. Like, he's charming, and talented, and the coolest big brother any teenage girl could want.

    Which, to be clear, is sort of what they do in the video I linked above, but only happens several minutes in, and I didn't really specify.

    But I'll do so now. Out of context, if you as an author were talking about a character — whether it's Spencer, or one of your own, or someone else entirely — Alice in Wonderland, Malcolm Reynolds, Eowyn — how would you do it?

  10. pilot27407 Says:

    Question on the tip of my tongue. If you enjoy reading spy thrillers, how come you don’t represent such?

  11. Kate Says:

    Pilot — I think I enjoy them partly because I don't represent them — because I can put aside thoughts about marketing, and positioning, and wondering if the editor would be open to a submission — and just enjoy the story.

    I'd love to find a spy thriller for the YA or MG market, but I'm happy not to tip my toes into the adult thriller market. Besides, I fear that if I did start getting a ton of spy thriller submissions (besides the ones I get already, despite the fact I don't rep them) I wouldn't enjoy the ones I read for pleasure quite as much.

    The YA and MG markets allow for a lot more variety in topics.

  12. Beth Says:

    I've re-read the Vorkosigan series recently, and the way it's done there is to give the description through various points of view. So in one book there's Miles himself grumbling in narration about how being a little person sucks, in another there's someone being introduced to him and expecting someone taller, in a third it's Miles explaining out loud after someone actually comments on it.

  13. Ronie Melvar Says:

    Going overboard in describing characters from previous books in a series is such a critical dilemma for every writer. Authors like Silva, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis are those that I truly believe have mastered characterization without boring readers, at least, myself.