Last week, in Part 1 of this series, I discussed Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache murder mystery series, and some of the pros and cons of having a long-running series with the same main and supporting characters. This week, I’m going to talk about a form much more familiar to romance readers: related books with a different set of main characters for each story. And it’s hard to think of a more fun way to look at romance series than revisiting Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family, eight siblings (and eventually their widowed mother) who each get their own HEA.
In all honesty, I can’t remember which book of this series I read first, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Thus far, I’ve only reread three of them with the goal of learning lessons to apply to my own future historical romance series, but already, I’ve gotten some great ideas.
Assemble a fun cast of characters, and give each of them a moment in the sun. Having a new hero/heroine take the lead in each book is a hallmark of the romance series. The reason seems obvious – romances tend to be about one of the most romantic stages of a relationship, falling in love. And since another of the hallmarks is the loving couple earning their own happily ever after by the end of the book, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to bring them back as leads the next time around. While we might lose the depth of knowledge we can achieve with recurring protagonists, like Penny’s Gamache, we can gain a fresh perspective by seeing the series world through a new set of eyes.
In Quinn’s Bridgertons, there are eight related, loving, and very intertwined siblings. But they each go about love – finding it, pursuing it, even avoiding it – in very different ways. While they share family traits and history, they are male and female, span a wide age range, and have different societal responsibilities (based on birth order, gender, etc.). One of the things Quinn does well is filter different establishing events, for example, the family patriarch’s death at an early age, through each character’s viewpoint. As I’m trying to build characters with a common history for my own romance series, I’m realizing just how difficult – but also challenging in a very good way – it is to come at the same defining event from many different angles.
Pick your favorite secondary character, and give him/her a book of his/her own. It might not be fair to pick favorites, but we tend to do it anyway. And sometimes, by the end of a book, which represents months or even years of an author’s time spend with a group of characters, the one who cries out to have his story told next catches us by surprise. In my romance series, I have five school friends who make up the hero pool for the 5 full-length books of the series. I thought the hero of book 2 was going to be the swaggering rake of the group. Instead, the straight-laced, prudish one is going to get his HEA first (and is going to loosen up quite a bit in the process).
Of course, that’s not the only way to choose the lead for the next book. I don’t know whether Quinn chose each Bridgerton protagonist based on whomever became her favorite supporting character in the previous book. Because she built a world based on a family of eight siblings, she had a limited pool to choose from each time out, and she might very well have laid out the order of their romances from the beginning of series planning. In our own 8LW group, Justine has known she’s going to give her protagonist’s sister a story of her own since the early days of 3P. But whether by design or serendipity, if we spend time fleshing out our secondary characters, readers are going to find them interesting enough to come and read about those characters when they get to take the lead.
Develop inside jokes among the characters and share them with the readers. One of the fun things Quinn did in her series was name each of the eight siblings in alphabetical order, from eldest Anthony to youngest Hyacinth. In addition to being quirky, this helps fix the birth order and some approximation of age in the readers’ minds. Quinn has a lot of fun ‘making Mozart turn over in his grave’ by subjecting her characters to the infamous Smythe-Smith musicale, given annually by London’s perhaps least musically talented family ever. (The Smythe-Smiths became so popular with readers, they eventually got their own series.) The Bridgerton books also feature a notorious gossip who writes under the pen name Lady Whistledown, who is eventually unmasked late in the series.
An overarching storyline can be used in a romance series, just as Penny used a big story building throughout the first nine books of the Gamache series. But even if there isn’t a big mystery or reveal to keep readers returning, well-done romance series like Quinn’s Bridgertons are adept at bringing readers back to the story to share inside jokes and catch up with favorite characters from romances past, all while experiencing fresh new stories about falling in love.
Are you a fan of Quinn’s books, or any other romance series? And if you’re writing a romance series of your own, what are you learning about the process along the way?