There’s an essential difference between a book that stands alone and a book in a series. In a one-off, anything can happen. In particular, you can kill off your protagonist. You’d be very unhappy with an Agatha Christie novel that ended with the gory strangulation of that sweet Miss Marple using piano wire. (What is it about piano wire that we always associate with strangulation? Was there a sale? Home Depot has lots of wire, but none in the category of “Piano”. Barbed wire would be meaner and razor wire would be more efficient. Yes, I spend too much time thinking about these issues.)
Though Sherlock Holmes went over the falls because Conan Doyle was sick of writing his “mere entertainments”, Sherlock survived in the end. It’s generally bad form to take a reader in hand and walk them through an intriguing story only to kill off the protagonist. It often makes the reader feel they’ve invested a lot of time and energy into a hero or heroine for naught. Kill off the intrepid heroine and, unless you follow her into an amazing Afterlife, readers will feel cheated of the victory they expected. Exceptions exist, but downer endings without some larger goal achieved easily go sour. Be careful about killing off the good guy.
When you write a series, character is even more important than usual because no matter what pressure cookers you throw your protagonist into, the reader is pretty sure he or she will come out reasonably okay in the end and uncooked. Character is key. Sacrifices are demanded. Red shirts are required. Captain Kirk was responsible for the deaths of many of the Enterprise Crew. Everybody would be much safer if they stayed home on Earth, but, whether we’re writers, appreciative readers or just out of Starfleet Academy and beaming down to the planet in Come-Eat-My-Face Red, “Risk is our business.”
The trick is to get the reader invested in your protagonist’s goals, make them real and ensure they are sympathetic. For example, my hit man, Jesus Diaz, is an orphan with a history of childhood abuse. That’s explored in the first book in the series, Bigger Than Jesus. In Higher Than Jesus, he’s dealing with moral issues around what he does for a living while battling Vicodin addiction and some bad guys who are much worse than he. He’s also in love again and out to save the future Mrs. Diaz. Despite everything against him, Jesus is also a funny guy and the deeper the trouble, the funnier he is. That’s his key to multiple books.
Somebody asked me if my inspiration for that quirk was Spider-Man. I used to collect comics and yes, Spider-man is, as they used to say in the Silver Age of comics, “a real cut-up”. However, I first discovered the power of the funny in myself when I encountered a guy with a knife intent on slicing me up. My fear fuelled something in me and I was never as hilarious as when I was sure I was about to die. It was under the controlled conditions of an Operating Room, but still…
~Robert Chazz Chute is the author of crime novels, two books about writing and publishing and several books of suspense, including Self-help for Stoners. He has hugged the man who inspired the book, director Kevin Smith of Silent Bob fame, but it was a man-hug. Self-help for Stoners is in Kevin Smith’s bathroom for reading when the whim strikes. Hear the podcast and consume the muted glory that is his author site at AllThatChazz.com.