I'm currently reading Plum Spooky, a "Between the Numbers" book, by Janet Evanovich. As with the other Stephanie Plum books, the writing is fun and frothy, and Stephanie's already landed herself in a mess. But I noticed an interesting feature as I read through the chapters. Other than the addition of Diesel, there's really no way to tell where this book falls in line in the series. I recently reread Four to Score, and in both books, Stephanie eats dinner at her parents' house (six o'clock sharp!) with her grandmother making wisecracks and her father silently looking at his plate, Lula is still an ex-prostitute with a lot of swagger, and Stephanie is still conflicted on where her relationship with Morelli stands.
All this familiarity made me think about the benefits of keeping the characters essentially stuck in a time warp rather than having them move forward with their lives. As mentioned, Plum Spooky could fall anywhere in the series. There are no identifying marks, other than maybe what car she's driving, to help me determine if this is the second book or the fifteenth book.
And that holds a certain appeal. I hate that feeling of being lost when I read a later book from a series where the character has experienced a life-changing event, like getting married, getting divorced, or suffering the loss of another character. I have to wonder how much I've missed, how many books back I need to go to find out what happened. Of course, then when I go back to the earlier book, there's a lack of suspense because I already know the outcome. I don't get that lost feeling when I read a Stephanie Plum book because the characters are essentially in the same place. It reminds me of Seinfeld, where you could watch any episode and still enjoy it in its entirety because the overall lives of the characters never changed, except for an occasional storyline like when George was engaged to Susan.
This standalone quality gives Evanovich the opportunity to focus specifically on each main plotline of her books, filling the story with madcap fun and hilarious situations. She doesn't need to worry about what a character learned in the previous book and how it has changed their worldview and behavior. It allows for a certain freedom.
On the other hand, that leads to the question of whether or not a character needs to grow in a series. I was recently reading an online thread where an author asked what bugs people about cozy mysteries, and one person commented that they couldn't stand when characters never learned anything or grew as a person. For my own series, I try to have Dana deal with personal issues in each book, from her relationship with her mom to the one with her sister and, in this third book I'm working on, her boyfriend. But I always wonder how much I should have Dana move forward.
I'd love to writes lots of books for the Blossom Valley Mysteries series, but that makes me wonder how fast her relationships, especially the one with her boyfriend, need to move. At some point, would they need to get married? The entire dynamic of the relationship would change with such a move. But how long can I string the characters along? Like Stephanie Plum, Hannah Schwartz from the Joanna Fluke series has managed to date two men on and off without picking one over the other for several books now, but that's a tricky business and one that could potentially alienate readers if they get frustrated.
For now, I think I'll keep inching along with the relationships and see where they go. Maybe Dana and Jason aren't ultimately meant for each other. Maybe they'll break up and Dana will find someone new in a future book. Only time will tell, but Dana's life will continue to progress in each book, even if only by a little.
What do you think? Is it okay to keep characters the same in every book, or do they need to move on with their lives?