Romance has a phenomenon that doesn’t occur to anything like the same degree in other genres: the linked books with different MCs. You don’t get murder mystery series with constantly changing sleuths, and it’s pretty rare for epic fantasy trilogies to pick out a new humble farm boy or feisty vizier’s daughter in every book. Whereas we in romance love our changing MCs from the motorcycle club, university friends, group of Regency gentlemen who go to the same club, or small town where everyone knows and boinks everyone else.
There are a lot of good reasons to do this. For the writer, it allows worldbuilding on a larger scale, showing many different aspects. For the publisher, who may also be the writer, it allows for easy marketing—you liked that book? Here’s this one! And for the reader, there’s the pleasure of familiarity along with a new story, and the chance of seeing more of the people we loved before, even if their time in the spotlight is over. We want to see how our old friends are getting on!
That’s the tricky bit.
The temptation in writing mixed MC series is that the fans may well be clamouring to see their faves again, and even if they aren’t, the author is. It is almost irresistible to populate the character list with previous MCs and drop in little references to previous books, or indeed huge ones.
Sara sauntered down Blue Blossom Valley’s main street. To her left was Joanie’s knitwear shop. They’d had a wild time when the terrorists had taken Joanie hostage, but now she was safely married to Sara’s brother. On the right was the library, now being rebuilt after the earthquake that had tested them all last year, but brought the pastor and Miss Ellie together at last. She was thinking happily of their forthcoming wedding when she saw Marco—the town’s bad boy turned millionaire and father of two adorable babies with Flora, who had come to Blue Blossom Valley a young widow and tamed Marco’s free spirit with her gentle nature—pull up on his motorbike.
I barely exaggerate. We’ve all read book 17 of the Blue Blossom Valley series, and no matter how much the publisher assures us “this book can be read as a standalone”, it has that irritating feel of turning on the TV and watching episode 2049 of a soap opera you’ve never seen before.
There are three main ways authors use what I am going to call NPCs (non player characters, i.e. the MCs of another book as minor characters). Let’s go over these.
Past MCs explained
This is probably the commonest and most obtrusive method of bringing in NPCs.
Kelsey waved hello to Jane, whose cupcake business had nearly gone under last year until she met bad boy turned billionaire Mike, and was now glowing with expectant motherhood, and ordered coffee.
If we care about Jane we’ll remember the cupcake thing anyway. If we’ve forgotten who she is, or never read her book in the first place, it’s a pointless infodump.
The key here is relevance. If Jane is just there to nod at the reader, this is padding. The regular reader may think, “Oh, it’s Jane and she’s up the spout, how nice for her!” but that’s all you achieve. Meanwhile, the new reader feels irritated by a complete stranger’s cupcakes intruding on the story.
If Jane is going to play a meaningful part in Kelsey’s book, by all means introduce her, but think about what information you need to include. Does Mike play a role, and if so, can we wait to introduce him till he’s on page? Is the prior economic instability of the cupcake business relevant to Kelsey at this point, or at all?
I am very fond of closely linked mixed MC series, and the MCs of my Society of Gentlemen series are all over one another’s books like a rash. I am also well aware of the difficulty of trying to introduce NPCs with vast amount of backstory, and of the numerous times I’ve got it wrong myself. The conclusion I have now reached is this:
Pretend they’re new.
Forget you wrote 80,000 words of pining, arguing, hot sex, and murder-solving starring these people, and treat returning NPCs as brand new characters—whether secondaries who need explanations, or minor characters who pass like ships in the night. That will show you how important any individual detail is. Would you mention Jane’s past business travails, or let her giggle about her amazing sex life and announce her pregnancy, if she was a new character just there for Kelsey to talk to? Maybe you would, in order to cast light on Kelsey’s character or plot, and that’s fine–if you’re doing it for the sake of Kelsey’s book.
My Sins of the Cities, Society of Gentlemen and Lilywhite Boys series are all set in the same world. Here’s Any Old Diamonds as the MC reflects on the jumped-up Duchess of Ilvar:
The Duke could buy his wife a private railway line for her convenience, and jewels as other husbands bought flowers, but he’d never been able to purchase public approval or liking. Even time hadn’t managed that. There were music-hall brides who had claimed their places in the aristocracy more effectively than Her Grace—not, perhaps, the appalling Lady Euston, but certainly the Countess of Moreton, who had been a trapeze artist and killed a man, yet was universally popular. Then again, Lady Moreton had charm, humility, and a delightful sense of humour. The Duchess had none of those.
My aim here was primarily to put the Duchess’s unpopularity into a social context, and secondarily to slide Lady Moreton into the reader’s awareness as primer for when she turns up in person as an important minor character later on. The fact that I am bringing Greta Starling / Lady Moreton back from An Unsuitable Heir may be satisfying to me and to some readers, but it’s very much not the main intention of the passage. Decide for yourself if it works.
Handling NPCs becomes a lot harder when you have a plot arc linking books, because previous events and characters will have to be explained as part of cluing the new reader in. (When I am Supreme Dictator of the Universe, there will be Words about starting closely linked trilogies at book 3.) I am right now writing book 2 of the Lilywhite Boys duo where the plot requires me to go over events and introduce characters from book 1, and one character is heavily motivated by childhood events that relate to a different book altogether. This could very easily slide into plot summaries of previous books.
So pretend they’re new. Ask yourself what’s relevant to the plot/MCs now, what’s valid texturing detail now, and mainly, what’s the absolute maximum re past books you can leave out. If you focus ruthlessly on the current MCs and plot, you are less likely to get bogged down in callbacks to previous glories–and readers will be less afflicted by the sensation of coming into a soap opera too late.
This is hard to do and one person’s idea of texturing detail will inevitable feel like another’s unnecessary callback. It’s worth remembering that, because you the author know the NPCs, they will almost certainly come across as vivid, real, and important even if you’re not making a conscious effort to present them that way. Less may well be more.
Past characters not explained
It is incredibly tempting (for me anyway) to fill books with Easter eggs—passing mentions of NPCs in a way that won’t stand out to new readers but will spark joy for those who know the books. I absolutely love this in my reading as well as writing, but it can be self-indulgent and irritating if done poorly.
I’m now going to embarrass myself for your sake. Here is a deleted sequence from An Unnatural Vice. As you read it, bear in mind that Justin has been nearly murdered and he and Nathaniel are hiding with Nathaniel’s posh titled friends to avoid being killed.
Justin looked around the drawing room, since he had nothing to add to the reminiscences of Binky and Bledsoe and old Potty. It was a very comfortable room, not in the modern style but bright, with yellow walls rather than the fashionable green, and a profusion of pictures. One in particular caught his eye, and he rose to examine it. It was a large portrait, in oils, of an elderly man bearing some resemblance to his host: a big, deep-chested bulky fellow. It would have been much like every other painting of unknown rich people Justin had ever seen, except that in place of the usual spaniel or hunting hound, he had a fox at his feet, its russet coat also frosted white by age. Man and fox looked out of the portrait with disturbingly similar expressions of calm determination.
“Sir David Wilkie,” Rodmarton said behind him.
“The painter. The subject is my great-uncle.”
“It’s a superb piece,” Justin said, basing that on the fact it was hanging in here, rather than the artistic judgement he didn’t have. “Is the fox a symbol of his rank, or arms, or was it a pet?”
“My dear chap, one couldn’t have a pet fox. Vermin. Gnaw your vitals out like the Spartan boy.” That was the kind of gibberish Justin’s wealthier clients often came out with. He gave a smiling nod, as though he knew what the man was on about. “No, it was an odd whim of his. No meaning at all.”
“Oh, Roddy, really, of course it means something.” That was a female voice from behind them. Justin turned to see a short, smiling, plump woman. “Good evening. You must be Nathaniel’s friend?”
Her husband beamed. “This is Lady Rodmarton. Justin Lazarus, Tommy.”
Justin took her hand with the best bow he could manage. She looked startlingly ordinary for the wife of a marquess-to-be.
“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Lazarus. Is that a French name?”
“Not to my knowledge. Thank you for your hospitality.” As if it was her rushing around to make all ready.
“Not at all. Nathaniel always brings us excitement, one way or another. I desperately want to hear about it when you’ve both eaten. You were admiring the portrait?”
“Tommy has a theory,” Rodmarton said with a fond smile. “Great-Uncle never married, you see, and Tommy will have it he had himself painted with the fox as some sort of secret message to the particular woman he didn’t marry, if you follow me.”
“That’s a touching story,” Justin said.
If you have read my book A Gentleman’s Position you may well be squeaking with excited glee at this passage. My FB chat group loved it as a snippet; it meant a lot to me to write it. But if you are in the (inexplicably much larger) group who has not read that book, you will be sitting there thinking “Weren’t they on the run from murderers? Why the bobbins are we talking about paintings of dead people with random animals?” and you will be absolutely right to. This passage gives us a sense of Justin’s personality, and the class divide between him and Nathaniel, so it’s not entirely self-indulgence, but call it 90%. Maybe 95%. I cut the entire plotline.
Also known as sequel bait: the NPC waiting their turn for stardom. This is a bit harder because the author may need to lay groundwork for a future book, and will want to get readers interested in a later MC—but you must not do it at the expense of the current book. If the ultra-glamorous Lord Flashheart of book 3 steals the show of book 2, you’ve weakened book 2’s MCs, plot, and the reader’s experience.
The trick is to remember whose point of view you’re in—which is one or both of the MCs who are falling in love. They should be the centres of each other’s attentions, thoughts, even worlds. We do not want to find a third party far more interesting, attractive, and striking than their lover through their eyes–and we really don’t want the sense that the author would rather be writing Lord Flashheart’s book. (Nor, may I add, do we want to read an advert for another book in the middle of this one.)
And here I will add that the same goes for returning NPCs—if they steal the show, you’ve weakened your book. You do not want your reader to walk away from book 4 thinking, “Wow, that reminded me how much better book 1 was, and how much more I liked that other character.”
Every in-book appearance of NPCs, whether as passing mentions or major secondaries, has to serve a purpose in this book, not be fan service for the last. Make them work. If they are genuinely relevant to the MCs’ characters and their plot, they won’t feel shoehorned or irrelevant. If their only/main purpose is to remind the reader of past stories and glories, you have not done yourself or the reader a favour.
I’m not downplaying loyal readers’ urge to know how past MCs are getting on. That’s a wonderful thing–but it must never overwhelm the current story. If you want to host a dinner party where seven previous heroines show off their accumulated children and pregnancies, or whatever equivalent for your MCs, there’s a lot to be said for making it a free story for your newsletter, rather than a chapter in book 8. That gives readers a good wallow without unbalancing the new book, and drives your newsletter subs.
Because it’s great that readers loved your previous book—but don’t let that stand in the way of making them love this one too.
My most recent book is Any Old Diamonds, which ties into my Society of Gentlemen and Sins of the Cities series. Why not buy it and see if I can put my money where my mouth is? /marketing face/