Growing a Series Character

Elaine OrrElaine L. Orr writes the Jolie Gentil cozy series as well as humorous essays and local histories. The most recent Jolie Gentil book is Behind the Walls.

Link for Behind the Walls:

Elaine’s blog is

The main character in my Jolie Gentil Cozy Mystery Series is…you guessed it, Jolie Gentil. I spent a lot of time figuring out not just who she would be but a career that would have the flexibility to get into trouble on a regular basis (real estate appraiser).

She has a wry sense of humor, and a couple of friends have more witty, almost slapstick at times, outlooks. I never thought of her as mean-spirited, so I spent some time thinking about one reviewer’s take on Jolie after he finished the first book (Appraisal for Murder).  The reviewer said, “She is neither likable, funny, nor friendly. She’s more snarky than anything. I’ve read thousands of books over the years, and there are not many main characters I liked less.”

Hmmm.  I’m a believer in the ‘take what you like, and leave the rest’ philosophy about reviews.  However, I like is to learn from them, so I thought a lot about this reviewer’s comments.

In the first book, Jolie has just left her husband after finding out he had gambled away their assets and started on his bank’s. She left him not so much for what he did as for his it’s-no-big-deal-attitude about it. She’s hurting and is more self-absorbed than usual.  Not that readers would know what she is usually like; they only knew what I showed them.

When this review appeared, I had published the second book (Rekindling Motives), which I wrote almost in tandem with the first book. In it Jolie begins to look outside herself more, largely because she was roped into running the food pantry at a local church. But she still was not someone who went out of her way to help others.

Behind the WallsAs the series progressed, Jolie realizes how many ordinary people have too little food, and she gets to know a couple of the local homeless guys who use the food pantry. Of course, anyone she comes across has to relate to whatever crime she wants to look into.  What I decided was that a book can be humorous or even riveting and still have the protagonist look beyond themselves. A food pantry fundraiser can involve Jolie getting dunked at a carnival or staging a mock sword fight at an event related to the annual “Talk Like a Pirate Day”. However, Jolie could not go from a self-absorbed twenty-something to a proselytizing do-gooder in a short time. Never, actually, for these stories to work.

It was the fifth book in the series (Trouble on the Doorstep) in which I think Jolie’s character became the more well-rounded woman she is now. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on her New Jersey beach town raised her compassion level. Yes, she can still be snarky, but she’s also a devoted friend to her best-bud Scoobie and she melds her work and food pantry duties into a worthwhile life.

Worthwhile is not necessarily interesting to a mystery reader, so Jolie retains an overly inquisitive mind and the ability to ignore people who suggest she mind her own business. She is also probably a bit less snarky than she might have been without that early review. In this case, what I liked and took from that review made a difference in Jolie’s outlook on life.  A well-rounded character is a more appealing one to readers. And more fun to write.