Recurring Characters Are Not Just in Series and Sequels

Obviously, there are recurring characters in novel sequels and series. Some are sleuths who star in mysteries, and many are non-sleuths who hail from other genres. Memorable, widely known recurring characters include Harry Potter, Jack Reacher, Katniss Everdeen, Lisbeth Salander, Sherlock Holmes, Anne Shirley, Miss Marple, “Easy” Rawlins, Harriet Vane, Frodo Baggins, etc., etc.!

Then there are characters who appear in more than one novel despite the books not being sequels or series per se — which will be the subject of this blog post. In a number of cases, they’re a minor character in one novel, and a major character in another.

One advantage of recurring characters is that they add to the illusion of reality — the worlds that authors create can seem more believable when readers encounter the same people in different books. And if readers like and/or find those characters interesting, they are thrilled to see them several times. Also, multiple appearances by characters give authors the opportunity to depict them in a more nuanced, complex way than might be the case with one-novel appearances.

Emile Zola was among the writers who mastered this. For instance, he introduced Claude Lantier as a supporting character in The Belly of Paris before making that troubled artist the full-fledged star of The Masterpiece, and gave Nana Coupeau a relatively modest role in The Drinking Den before making her the main protagonist in Nana.

Zola may have gotten the recurring idea from earlier-in-the-19th-century French author Honore de Balzac, whose perhaps most prominent use of the device was having Rastignac appear in Old Goriot and about a half dozen other novels.

There was also Mark Twain, who made Tom Sawyer the star and Huck Finn a supporting player in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and then made Huck the star and Tom a supporting player in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom was subsequently featured in two lesser, late-career Twain novels: Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.

In 20th- and 21st-century literature, authors who have gone the recurring-character route include Kurt Vonnegut (Kilgore Trout appeared in or was mentioned in various novels), Margaret Atwood (“Snowman” was prominent in Oryx and Crake and not so prominent in The Year of the Flood), Robert Heinlein (the long-living Lazarus Long had a role in about a half dozen novels), and Fannie Flagg (who put characters such as the Norma/Macky couple, Aunt Elner, and radio host “Neighbor Dorothy” in Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, then Standing in the Rainbow, and then Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven).

Can you name some recurring characters from non-sequel, non-series books? And, heck, if you want to mention your favorite characters from series and sequels, be my guest!

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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.