Being the author of an ongoing series, I am fascinated by how authors keep their characters fresh and their readers wanting more. My son suggested Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels as an interesting case study. After reading the first three books, I was hooked. Research quickly gave way to pleasure as I read every single book. The feature on Kindle that directs me to purchase the next book in the series as soon as I have finished the previous one is extremely helpful – translation – irresistible.
With my research hat on, I asked myself, what makes Jack Reacher a hero who bears up through so many novels? Well … he’s quirky. His constant pursuit of coffee made me love him. Black, steaming hot and out of a thick white mug. Reacher is all about his coffee.
Then there is his abhorrence for personal possessions – exempting his signature folding toothbrush – this leads to any number of odd and humorous situations. Buying new clothes every three days just adds to Reacher’s quirky mystique. When he remarked that he was amazed to discover second-hand janitorial wear, I cringed and said to myself – Oh my God, Jack – no.
Don’t let Hollywood fool you. Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher. He is as far from Jack Reacher as anyone could get. Just my opinion. Reacher has hands like pancakes, mussed up hair, cheap, baggy clothing and enough scars to make you cringe, he’s no Don Juan. And he knows it. He’s self-deprecating to a fault.
As the authors of serial fiction, what can we glean from Lee Child’s success? First, we shouldn’t be afraid to create a quirky character. Readers end up loving the eccentricities. One caveat – there must be a reason for the character’s quirkiness. Random weirdness is not what we are after.
Lee has created a wonderful Littlest Hobo persona for his main character. Jack Reacher roams from town to town making things right.
There’s a voice that keeps on calling me
Down the road is where I’ll always be
Every stop I make, I’ll make a new friend
Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.
Down this road, that never seems to end,
Where new adventure, lies just around the bend. (Maybe Tomorrow – Terry Bush – Theme song from the Littlest Hobo)
Reacher’s sense of justice is unfailing. He can always be counted on to handle anything thrown at him in terms of physical demands, he always ends up with some girl – though not always the glamour girl. He is more a man who falls into various situations when it comes to women. Some of his relationships last over a couple of books. Some he returns to books later, but Jack is the quintessential wanderer and the beauty of him is that he won’t settle down. Down the road is where he’ll always be.
The movement around the United States is another fascinating aspect of the Jack Reacher novels. In each state and city Reacher finds himself, Child lavishes on location details – streets, landmarks, climate and local customs. It’s like being on a road trip.
Another gleaning – locations rich in detail work well to move characters and books along. Discovering a new city through the eyes of a well-known character is a reader’s delight.
Lee Child does an excellent job at doling out Reacher’s history. Whole books are devoted to his time in the army as an MP and these additions to the series answers the questions that pop up for readers who follow Reacher from town to town and wonder what can possibly motivate him to act as he does.
Our final gleaning is to create a character with a past complicated enough to keep his or her internal struggles going strong book after book. Jack Reacher’s past will take him the rest of his life to work out and that serves Lee Child well. And another caveat – that internal struggle must lead, though it may be halting and awkward at times, to ongoing character development. No reader will put up with being stuck with a character on a long-term basis who isn’t learning and changing.
There you have it. Recipe for a hit series. Makes you want to start doodling around with some character profile cards, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, here’s me thinking I might re-read the whole series.
Great post!!!! I am a huge fan of Jack Reacher so it was fun to read your thoughts. And also to note that you agree – he is NOT Tom Cruise! In my vision of him, I’ve always seen more Trace Adkins.
I just went to Google images to see what Trace Adkins looks like and I see what you’re saying. He certainly gets way closer to the mark than Tom Cruise 🙂 Glad to meet other Jack Reacher aficionados and glad you liked the post.
I’ve only read Jack Reacher book by Lee Child, and it was an audiobook. It was quite some time ago so I don’t remember offhand which one it was. I believe I found Reacher intriguing but not compelling enough to pick up another book. Still, even I had to laugh out loud at the idea of Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Seriously?! That’s the problem with books made into movies: the movie makers can be so far off base with casting, it should be illegal 😉 Now, this post makes me think I need to give Reacher another chance. I had a period where I binged on police procedurals and detective mysteries with complicated heroes, but I burned. After the nth time the hero has cheated death, I’m done. And when they don’t learn and grow, I’m well done. It sounds like Reacher is different.
I do feel like Reacher grows. But his ability to cheat death is somewhat miraculous. On the other hand, when I like a character, I’m relieved he or she doesn’t bite the dust. Another great long-term character is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. The template seems to be tortured past, good internal dialogue and struggle, a degree of quirkiness, some interesting traits … and away you go. I am always up to delve into this writing craft from the perspective of what I enjoy. Makes the whole process so much more fun 🙂
I was “addicted” to the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbø until I got tired of how Harry not only cheated death in the most outrageous ways but always succumbed to alcohol when people needed him most. It made him unlikeable, for me anyway. I listened to one of the Harry Bosch novels and found it entertaining. I also watched the TV series for a while (good series to knit by 😉 ). You’ve really sparked my interest in giving Reacher another try. I agree that studying the writing craft through the authors you enjoy is fun. There’s something to learn from authors I don’t enjoy, but … life is short. I’d rather have fun.
Yes indeed – if we can make learning fun, why not?
I was really into the Jack Reacher Series, but I kind of got away from it. It was like James Patterson: A new release every week, it seems.
When you write those words – a new release every week – you don’t sound jealous at all but when I say it – oh my – it’s like I’m the green eyed monster – LOL. Tone is everything. Definitely, I think a certain type of formula fiction lends itself to quicker production. Maybe when I get my all-over-the-map series out of my system, I’ll give more thought to formula. If one can make it work, it seems like it really works. Thanks for stopping by, Mark.
I’ve enjoyed a few Reacher stories though some of the violence is towards the outer edge of my personal limits. I guess I’m a wimp. I was surprised to find that Lee Child is only a year or two younger than me and, far from being an American, was born and brought up in my neck of the woods in the English Midlands 🙂
Violence seems a necessary part of the genre Child and others write. Not always my cup of tea, either. Plus, any of these main characters have the proverbial nine lives (or more) of your average cat. I knew he was from the UK but wasn’t sure where he hailed from. You were practically neighbours – less than 6 degrees from fleeting fame and fortune 🙂