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Thursday, February 22, 2007

 

Character versus series. Who will win?

Lots of people write series. Lots of people buy series. But series are a mixed blessing, artistically. Sometimes they're marvellous, and sometimes, well, not really.

I've talked previously about series loyalty, the force that leads people to stick with a series that's declining in quality, often past the point where the quality has declined so badly that it's now something they wouldn't actually like if they weren't already hooked. The flip side of this is that series are a safe bet for writers. You've got bills to pay, after all, and coming up with good new ideas takes a lot of time, and you've got a great character and situation, so a series is a good idea. Possibly you're also writing in, and/or fond of, a genre where series are a common thing, so a series seems like a natural way to continue. You've broken in with your first book, you've got your foot in the door, and a series will keep it there.

It doesn't always work.

Many people, I'm sure, will be familiar with the following sentence: 'It's not as good as the early books, but I still kind of enjoyed it.' Series fatigue can set in, leaving a writer producing books that lack the earlier energy. In that situation a writer should probably quit while they're ahead and have some fun writing something completely different, but series fatigue isn't the only explanation for why series go downhill. The other explanation is about plot.

Plots happen to characters, and they're generally driven by characters. Write a sequel, and you've almost always separated the character from the plot.

To use Bareback as an example, the story follows one person in a murder mystery structure. The victim is her friend; the suspect is her client; the major subplots involve her lover and her sister. The story is a personal one. If I ever write a sequel, I'll have to think of another story that's equally personal - but stories tend to be about exceptional things happening, and exceptional things don't happen to people very often. Hence, in a sequel, if you're really going to make it work, you have the difficult problem of making it plausible that unlikely things would happen to somebody more than once in a lifetime. The improbability gets greater with every sequel. There are two ways to go on this: either you fall into a formula, and keep turning out books that are enjoyable stories but basically re-visitations of the first book, which they can never surpass, or you try to build on everything that's happened, which can lead to some extremely convoluted and improbable situations.

I'm fond, for instance, of the novels of George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series. They're great rollicking adventures with a zest for comedy and a lot of interesting historical background, and they're never less than terrific fun. The first book, though, the original, has a quality absent from all the others: it's hard to pin down in descriptive terms, but there's a freshness, a rawness, an edge that comes from the plausibility factor: all these things are happening to someone for the first time, they're tied to his life and personality. Once the second book began, the formula clicked on, and Fraser has been entertaining me ever since. But if you want to read a really good Fraser book, you should read Black Ajax, a fictionalised account of the nineteenth-century boxer Tom Molineaux which has all the zest and fun of the Flashman books, but the self-reliant strength of a standalone as well.

There are, conversely, some series that get better over time, that have ups and downs but really do work as series rather than as standalones. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels come to mind, but the character that really stands out as benefitting from a series is C.S. Forester's naval hero Hornblower, a character that develops and improves as the series goes along.

The difference is a clear one: Hornblower is a character conceived as separate from any given plot. He has a personality, but his personality shapes how he reacts to events that surround him, events that happen independently of him. He's also in an interesting situation in life, a sailor during the Napoleonic wars, which means that it's perfectly plausible that dramatic things would keep happening to him: his job puts him in the way of drama. His personal life is something of a subplot - for one thing, events keep taking him away from it - and his character dictates how he deals with the things that happen to him, but not what they will be.

It's a good example of a serialisable character. They need something that puts them in the way of dramas that aren't primarily about their own lives - sailor, detective, soldier, doctor - and enough personality to make them interesting, without so much that it starts shaping the plot in a way that can't be recovered from in later stories.

Do you have favourite series characters? What makes them work?

Comments:
One of the bigger series I've read through with no lapse of pleasure is Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Dresden works as a character because while some things stay the same, such as his drive to sacrifice for others, despite his character flaws, he continually evolves and deals with truly new and unique situations, instead of a rehash of the same plot with different monsters thrown in. He's growing as a character, and those who have read along want to see how he changes/suffers/matures in the next book (due out in April, btw). Despite his being a wizard, he is still very human and accessible.

Plus, gotta love the snarky tone of the series.
 
Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond. This series is so well done you almost don’t think of it like other series. Lymond is a courtier, scholar and very successful soldier. The series covers an intense period in Lymond’s life where he faces high personal stakes. His adventures, both personal and in the larger political scene of the time, are set against a dazzlingly portrayed 16th Century Europe (I think a world/setting large enough to hold a series and give it scope and new life is important). There is a love story too. DD does everything so well, she writes characters brilliantly. Lymond is my favourite character ever but he interacts with hosts of others including real people. Her writing is wonderful and her knowledge of the period is awesome. Each book stands alone and in a new location with a new piece of history to experience eg the decadent French court, the Knights of St John fighting the Turks, Russia, London and of course at the heart of it all Scotland. Half the books end with a huge hook to the next, but it really doesn’t matter because these are the sort of books you read all night, until your eyes fall out, because you can’t put them down.

Have gone off the point a bit but somewhat of a fan ;)
 
The three kinds of series that I think work well are:

1. The series that is conceived as one big plot/character arch (or at least appears to have been conceived like that.) These kinds of series give you those lovely something-small-from-book-one-suddenly-becoming-important-in -book-five sort of moments.

Good examples of these are:

David and Leigh Eddings: The Belgariad, The Mallorean, The Elenium and The Tamuli

Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials

Scott Westerfeld: Uglies Trilogy, The Midnighters

For some reason these sorts of series tend to be trilogies or quintets.

2. As you said in your blog, series where the central character is powerfully created and then goes through new challenges in each book that are plausible due to the job being interesting. Another thing that makes these sorts of series work well is for the character to move through history (by which I mean decades rather than time travel.) When a character falsely stays the same age and yet has lots of different experiences at that age it is clearly ridiculous.

The best and most excellent example of this sort of series are Walter Mosley's brilliant Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries.

3. Series which follow a group of characters in a single location/set up, but switches between characters from book to book giving the reader both variety and new perspectives on the central place/time/ideas/plot. These series perhaps lend themselves most to keeping the writing interesting, fresh and new, whilst also offering old enjoyments to loyal fans.

Examples of these are:

James Ellroy's LA Quartet (and other LA books)

Terry Pratchett's Discworld books (I like these a lot, I know that there are some really bad ones, but thats what comes when you write so many, and over time he has fallen foul of the whole repetitive formula thing, although his fantastical set up allows him to avoid making unbelievable new innovations. My favorites from this series are books featuring The Guards or The Witches. Which are, I guess, series within a series!!)

CS Lewis - The Chronicles Of Narnia

Ursula Le Guin - The Earthsea Novels and The Hain novels.

Irvine Welsh Novels (all set in the same place with characters who move from book to book, cameo's in novels offer a very pleasing taste to things.)

Niall Griffiths' Novels (see above)

John Williams' Novels (see above again.)


There are of course some exceptions to all this and The Moomin books by Tove Jansson are a wonderfully idiosyncratic exception. The day I work out what makes these books work so well will be the day I will no longer have to bother writing, I will have understood everything that can be understood. Thankfully I think this day will never come.
 
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