The Joys and Challenges of Writing a Series Character / Joe Clifford

I write the Jay Porter thriller series (Oceanview Publishing). With three in the bag (Lamentation, December Boys and Give Up the Dead), and numbers four and five under contract, I am preparing to dive back into the bleak wintery world of Lamentation Mountain.

Oftentimes when I tell someone I write a series character (usually at Christmas parties I don’t want to be at), I get one of two responses. Well, I get a lot of different responses, but two of note. The first is “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. How about I tell you, you write it, and we split the money?” As tempting as that offer is, I pass. The second, more interesting question is whether I find it stifling, artistically speaking. Whereas many of my responses in uncomfortable social situations tend to be standard, here my answer is always authentic and unique.

Like the books and characters in the series, the answer evolves; and like most of life’s compelling examinations, a great deal of conflict presents itself. There are parts I find stifling, but not for the reasons most think. Generally, I get asked this question by other artists, other writers. We are, after all, in this game to forge new ground. How many Jack Reacher books can Lee Child write? As many as he wants! I’d kill for his career, as I am sure most writers would, at least those of us who write genre. And that is where I’ll start.

Part of writing genre is ascribing to a template. I will avoid the word “formula” because it has such nasty connotations. I started out as a literary fiction writer before making the switch to the Dark Side. Even now I retain enough of those sensibilities that I can get slapped with the “literary thriller” label, which I love but drives bookstores mad.

When one says something is contrived, what they mean is he or she can see the strings. Readers don’t want to see the strings. They want to be submerged, lost, whisked away in the fantasy. But all art, by definition, is contrived; we make something out of nothing, create an illusion. One wrong move and it can all fall apart, exposing the machination behind the curtain.

But I like having that map, knowing I am not flying blind; I like a flight chart that gets me from Ashton to Arizona.

In the Jay Porter books, I get to chronicle the life of a man I care very much about. As crazy as it sounds, Jay has become as real to me as most of my friends. I certainly spend more time with him than I do most of my friends. Jay began as part me, part my half-brother, but now, after three books, he has grown into a wholly original creation. Deeply flawed, self-sabotaging, good intentioned but often perverted by anger, rage, and misunderstanding a dream that is just out reach, Jay resonates because of these conflicts (or so I’ve been told). I think it was Mailer who said our heroes need to be larger than life. I counter Norman that they need to be slightly less than. Because that rings truer for me. We all know the life we want. How many of us get it?

To this end, no, there is nothing stifling about watching a creation come into this world, and not unlike parenting a child, having to surrender ownership to allow that child to become what he needs to be, not what you want him to be. When I begin a Jay Porter book I have a loose idea of a plot, and then I see where Jay takes it. This is the very opposite of stifling. It’s exciting, unexpected, and I am often just as surprised (and infuriated) by Jay’s choices. But I find the ride richly rewarding. I hope my readers do too.

But there is a stifling component to writing a series. And like I said it’s not what most think. The hard part is that when you write a series, it becomes harder to write outside that world. Your style becomes immersed and associated with that one character and series, which makes it tougher to write different books. I’ve written several standalones, books I think are just as good as the Porter books, but it’s been harder to find them homes. I’ve heard if I “made them a Jay Porter book” . . . But that is what I am trying not to do in those situations.

Still, this is a minor gripe. I work as a professional novelist. How many writers would love to say that? I am humbled and honored by the opportunity.

Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. He is the author of several books, including Junkie Love and the Jay Porter Thriller Series (Lamentation, December Boys, Give Up the Dead), as well as editor of Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. Joe’s writing can be found at

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