The Imaginary Universe — building fictional characters and their world (Part 1)

One of the most satisfying things about writing literary fiction is the building of universes. Each book plays in its own version of the world, its characters are unique and the interaction between the imaginary people and their time-space-continuum drives the story forward. When you then write serial fiction —as I do with my Calendar Moonstone or Troubleshooter series— then you even have a long term component involved. Not only do you need to use the fictional world for one setting or one single storyline. No, you need to make this a longterm investment into story development, characters, and the over-time interaction these characters have. Some of the most famous serial novels like Spenser or Perry Mason ran over many many publications. Hell, even Jack Reacher is on its . . . what? . . .22nd installment?

Let's have a look at some aspects of this universe building and the core decisions an author needs to make. I will split this over some posts, as it is a little philosophical and inside-baseball, but I hope it gives you some ideas of what makes an author tick.

Long term development: yes or no / strong or weak — What do I mean by "long term dev"? Is there a development of the characters over the course of many books or not? Is our hero a happy person throughout book #1 and then falls onto personal hard time in book #2? Is there a recurring issue that is dramatized over the course of many books? Fall in love, fall out of love, try to live your lives.

If you look at Earl Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, there is no development between books. It is Perry, Della, and Paul running the cases and a preset number of district attorneys who present cases. But each book stands on its own, no need to look at a list to determine a certain reading sequence. Della is always Della, she has no friend, does never get married or divorced. Jack Reacher series has a similar approach; there is virtually no dependency, our lone hero comes to town, kicks some ass, and leaves as the winner. A very subtle and long term approach is done in the Spenser detective series. Spenser is the lone hero in early books, gets to know his love interest Susan, they break-up in the middle, work on their relationship, have no kids but a dog, first dog dies, second dog, Spenser ages, gets a knee joint replacement... So well done over the course of about 50 books and still going strong as the long term development not really hurts.

Let me give you three examples from my own stable of characters:

Firstly, Calendar Moonstone is set up as a series. I have a fixed set of characters: Calendar, her friend Mundy, the parents, and a remote sister with her two kids. The first two installments do not have too much development between them. But I do have on my harddrive (and in my head) a development plan for Calendar. The main driving momentum for this development is the inherently illegal activity that Calendar is so blatantly involved in. She is the heroine, but a flawed one: she steals expensive things, her moral compass is completely off. This will work for some book installments, but I am pretty sure that one day she will get caught and will need to pay a price for her almost cleptomaniac approach to jewlery.

Second example: Paul Trouble and his multifacette universe of corporate life, spy and Marine history. The stories can stand on their own, but there is an even more dependency on the stories long term. Paul is a broken man after losing his left hand, marred by bad dreams, constantly behind his sleep. Driven to avoid the next night on his matress, fighting an invisible enemy. Here I have a wide array of long term developments to chose from: Paul as a violent youth after his mother had died. Paul as Marine. Paul as a spy for CIA and British Intelligence services. Paul in his corporate troubleshooter role. The boy becomes a man, becomes a grown-up, with high and lows, relationships that are easy (with former colleague and love interest Irene Richards) and complicated (with former fiance Isabelle McAllister, daughter of his mentor, the General). This compley matrix of time, people, and places gives me a lot to work with as an author. I can jump from time to time, can pick storylines for a single book from one phase of Paul's life, or chose an overlap, or mix-and-merge relations. I love this!

Third example: the stand-alone novel. My romantic comedy "Five for Forever" is a story that stands on its own. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. After you read this book, you will not expect the story to continue in a "Six for Forever" or "Forever forever!". No, that's it! The universe of movie making, wooden ship builder, friends in financial need, Agnes's career choice, all needs to be opened and closed within 400+ pages. It is what it is and it will remain as it is. (Although: to be honest, I have two follow up ideas of stories that play in this universe, too. One triggered by a remark of my editor to put more Josh Hancock into the story. That created the idea of a post-FfF story that spins the tale of Josh and Vickie over the ages. Another good storyline would be a sort of ten-years-later view on the Flint family.

Well, that's it for today. Too many ideas, too little time to write.  (maybe one day, when I am brutally successful, I'll start a co-writing factory like James Patterson to drive my universes forward)