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"To Be or Not To Be?" What happens to characters when their author dies?


Photo by Annette Kassis, all rights reserved

Recently, while prowling a favorite section of my local bookstore, I had an encounter with an old friend that made me shriek with surprise and delight right there in front of God and everybody. This wasn’t an old college friend or a favorite professor or even an old boyfriend (perhaps a later post will deal with the one that got away…). It was Sunny Randall.


If you don’t know Sunny Randall, then telling you her given name is Sonya Randall will do no good whatsoever. Sunny is a smart, tough former cop turned PI who also paints, adores her Boston bull terrier Rosie, and can’t seem to get over the love of her life. She is flawed, seeks therapy and has a network of some very questionable acquaintances.


I love her.

Sunny, however, exists only on paper and came from the mind of the great Robert B. Parker.

I must confess a long-running love affair with the works for Mr. Parker: from the Spenser series to Jesse Stone to Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch…even non-series works like Gunman’s Rhapsody about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I love going back to the worlds inhabited by his characters time and time again. The settings, the snappy dialogue and the very defined code of right and wrong for people like Spenser, Hawk, Susan Silverman, Jesse Stone, Suitcase Simpson, Molly Crane, Spike, Richie Burke and Sunny Randall.


When Mr. Parker died suddenly in 2010, the loss hit on several levels. First and foremost, there was the loss to his family and what that loss means to them. I go through everything in the books I read, including the dedication and acknowledgements, and I always smile when I read his simple dedication to Joan in book after book. It was Joan of whom I thought first when I heard he was gone.


But then there’s that other loss. Parker left quite an extensive catalog, and even at that it was hard to think there would be no more. Specifically, the end of Mr. Parker’s life meant the end of the characters he created, who over and over again in book after book interacted with each other, and inhabited places, jobs and lives that had become comfortingly familiar.

So, what happens to these characters when their creator dies? What should happen? It would be nice if every author let their family know what they expect to happen with their work, and I believe that’s exactly what Mr. Parker did, and his estate is doing a fine and thoughtful job of selecting the writers who are carrying on the series. For others—and in this case, the great Sue Grafton comes immediately to mind—there is a different outcome. In Ms. Grafton’s case the family seems to have chosen to bookend her “alphabet” series of Kinsey Millhone stories with A and Y; an alphabet forever incomplete in honor of Ms. Grafton’s work as uniquely her own.


And that’s OK, too.


Of course not every writer creates a series in which characters appear in book after book, but for those who do, their characters have a way of setting up shop in the reader’s imagination and becoming very important. Even the fictional places they inhabit can take hold of the reader, feeling as though those places might actually exist. (I’m looking at you, Louise Penny. There’s a reason your legions of readers would love to find a real Three Pines.)


So what do you think? Should the characters survive beyond their creator?

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