As a contemporary romance writer, I know that series set in small towns and tight-knit communities are insanely popular.
But there’s also a danger that, as a series grows, those communities can begin to smother the vibrancy of later novels and their characters.
This isn’t just a danger with small-town contemporary romance. It can happen in any series that focuses on a particular community, whether that’s the ton in Regency romance or a fantastical world completely of the author’s creation.
Here are the ways communities can alienate me, the reader, and my thoughts on how to avoid it.
1. Characters from previous books pop up in places that aren’t critical to the conflict.
Of course your town has to have people, and those people should appear in multiple books if they’re part of a series.
But they’re not the most interesting people in the story – not if you do your job right, anyway. And they shouldn’t be used as a convenient way of rehashing your characters’ problems. I’ve read several contemporary romance novels recently where minor characters drop by for a coffee and chat, just so the heroine can recap everything she and the hero have been through in the last 80 pages.
Yawn. Talk about smothering the story’s forward momentum.
How to avoid it
Secondary characters should be unique and compelling in their own right and not feel like they’ve been trotted out to prove that the main characters are good people.
Whenever you write a scene, ask yourself what role everyone there is playing. They may be thwarting the main character’s goals, or they may be helping her achieve them. But if they’re just there to listen then they’re acting like a surrogate reader, a kind of filter for the real reader (me). In that case, dump ’em. You don’t want to put a filter between your characters and your reader.
Who to read
Jane Graves has written a couple of novels set in Plano, Texas. I guess Plano’s not a small town, but the way Jane writes it gives it a strong community feel. The most recent, Heartstrings and Diamond Rings, includes the heroine’s best friend Heather, who was herself the heroine of Tall Tales and Wedding Veils.
In both books, the women are distinct characters who stay true to their own traits. They help each other (or try to) in ways that stem naturally from their personalities, so they never feel like they’re just being used as a surrogate reader.
2. Even worse, characters from previous books are given their own point of view, and all they do is tell me how worried they are about the main characters in this story.
I recently started to read a book by a Big Name Historical Author whose novels I hadn’t read in years. In the second scene, before the heroine is even introduced, we’re in the head of a woman steering a ship. “Fine,” I think. “This is the heroine.”
Nope. It’s a heroine from a previous novel, and we stay in her head for paaaages. While her husband pets and nuzzles her, she thinks about how deliriously happy she is and worries about her male best friend who is still single.
What? I don’t know this woman, I don’t care about her, and frankly I don’t believe in her. If her husband’s that hot, why is she thinking about another man?
I’d much rather bond with this story’s main characters before being fobbed off on a minor character.
People, I paid $15 for that book at Nairobi airport and I stopped reading after 30 pages. In fact, I’m terrified of flying, but I actually chose to put the book down and stare at the airplane ceiling for ten hours because it was more interesting.
How to avoid it
Easy – don’t write scenes where anyone other than the hero or heroine has a point of view unless it’s necessary to the conflict. Use it to ramp up suspense or let the reader in on a secret that could destroy the people we’ve come to love. But use it sparingly.
I think this problem occurs when an author creates characters who prove incredibly popular with readers, or characters that the author herself finds difficult to let go of. It must be tempting to try to connect readers with your new characters by showing that your popular characters love them.
Who to read
For an author who incorporates minor characters’ points of views really well, try Roxanne St Claire. Her Guardian Angelinos romantic suspense series always keeps the focus tightly on the hero and heroine, even when we’re not in their heads. Scenes from minor characters’ perspectives are kept short and relevant to the conflict the hero and heroine are facing.
3. Characters talk about how much they love this town.
There’s always a danger in making a setting too perfect. Or if not too perfect, then too quirky. But the worst way to try to make me feel a connection with your setting is to have your characters tell me it’s a wonderful place. Show me it’s the kind of place that they needed to find.
How to avoid it
Look out for ruminating characters. It’s absolutely fine (and positively encouraged) for characters to have a revelation that they belong in this place. But paragraphs listing all the reasons the town is wonderful (“Gosh, everyone works together for the good of their neighbors! And doesn’t Susie Beth make the best pies? And I love that gosh-darn community spirit so much!”) will kill any passion I have for it. Maybe I’m a cynic. Maybe I’m a city girl. Okay, I’m both – but these kinds of passages bore me.
I love Katie Lane‘s Bramble series. The quirkiness of her town is off the charts, but her characters struggle, fight, and eventually accept that they belong there. This makes the town feel alive, like a fully fledged character in its own right.
4. Conflicts from previous books are explained in looong paragraphs despite having nothing to do with the conflict in this story.
This to me always smacks of an advertizement for a previous book slipped cack-handedly into this one. It feels like the most awkward, obvious attempt at subliminal “buy my other books!” messaging.
If a conflict runs throughout a series, that’s something else entirely. I will need a reminder of the key conflicts so I can be fully engrossed in this new story.
How to avoid it:
Beware passages that feel like summaries or queries, along these lines: “He first came to the town because he was trying to escape…but then he met…and then they were chased by the criminals…and now he loves living here.”
If you want to entice me to read one of the previous books in the series, then for God’s sake make the secondary characters in this one interesting!
Who to read
The first Victoria Dahl novel I read was Start Me Up, the second book in her Tumble Creek series. It TOTALLY sold me on reading the first in the series, Talk Me Down, because it introduces the hero and heroine of that novel in a way that shows their strong personalities and makes them intriguing. It left me wondering how they got together instead of telling me so much that I felt like I’d already read their story.
Have you come across novels where you felt the community smothered the characters or the story? Can you think of other examples of series with strong communities to recommend?
Great points! I’ve seen some of these happening in books I’ve read, and you’re right, it doesn’t help serve the plot and/or characterization of the current story, and that’s what’s important…
Thanks, Angela! It does annoy me when a story loses its momentum. 🙂
Thanks for the advice Kat. I recently came across a story, where the stories of the secondary characters got more focus on than the one of the hero and heroine. No fun book at all
That’s really one of my biggest pet peeves, Danny! Hate it. :/
I shouldn’t have read this (ANOTHER great post, BTW). Now I’m freaking out, wondering how many of those rules I broke. AAGH.
I’m guessing none, Kaki. Otherwise, I wouldn’t love your books so much. But that’s the thing with these “rules”. They’re more like things that annoy me when they’re poorly done, but they can work really well if they’re purposeful.
Great post, Kat. Like Kaki, I’m wondering how many of those rules I’ve broken, too! I think having the secondary characters in ongoing subplots helps. And I should say this issue gets even more precarious when you have a series that has the same hero/heroine rather than different ones that live in a “shared universe.” It’s tough keeping them fresh!
Oh, yes! I’m sure it must be tough keeping a character fresh throughout a series when the focus stays to tightly on them. Thank God you do it so well!
All great points! And easy to remember too!
I just finished Meg Benjamin’s book, Brand New Me, which is book 5 in her Konigsburg, TX series and I highly recommend it. She does a great job of incorporating the feel of the town and making it a community without it overpowering the story. The first four books followed four brothers, but now she is branching out and bringing in characters only peripherally related, while still including the original four and their spouses.
This sounds great, Jen. Thanks for recommending it! It’ll be interesting to see how she keeps the original four without overwhelming the others.