Thursday, May 19, 2011

Is there a trick to writing a series?

I'd often wondered about how or how not to "grow" a protagonist in a series.  There are many series out there that just lose "it" -- that unidentifiable quality that makes me desperate to turn the page and know what happens and how. On the Odyssey LiveJournal, author Lane Robins discusses her take on growing a protagonist over a series of books and the considerations an author must account for as she attempts such things.  She brings up something that I often feel like I see: you have an idea for two books and then your editor wants three. Or you sell the first three together -- you know how the story and the character flow -- and then they do so well that the publisher wants more. And, well, what the hell do you do now? More of the same? Why not. So often it's book four that gets episodic and breaks the camel's back -- or, in this case, my desire to read more.

Bone Crossed (Mercy Thompson, Book 4)Books one through three of the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs were just awesome.  Book four was necessary because the scene at the end of three remains unfinished until chapter one of book four!  (a cheap shot ? I think it was more like Briggs realized she couldn't end it where she ended it and took book four as an opportunity to rewrite the action by altering the "ending.")  But the plot of book four was abysmal.  Books four and five sort of wash together in my memory because of how unspectacular they were compared to the tight, directed plots of books 1-3.  Thankfully, book six got interesting because it solved some of the unsolved mysteries brought up as early as book one (why Mercy is the only coyote skin walker she's ever met).  Book five sort of did the same thing with Samuel. But book four? Yeah, still don't see the redeeming value there.

Is the lesson here to plant mysteries in book one?  Non-urgent mysteries, of course, that can be solved much, much later?

That might work, so long as the series keeps producing new mysteries to be solved later and doesn't give in to the temptation to become episodic jaunts.

Ghost Story (Dresden Files, No. 13)
I haven't read enough of the Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher to know how Butcher handles the series character.  But he's got at least 13 of these novels out and the popularity only seems to grow.  Book one drew the reader into the world and left us with more than we started with, but my feeling was that Harry Dresden was roughly in the same place as he was before.  That's what I mean when I say "episodic": things happen but the world returns to the way things were without permanently altering much.

Although, maybe all you need in the first novel of a series is to draw the reader into the world.  And the rest of the changes can come slowly.

TV shows are often episodic -- they air in episodes, so you can even say it's a given. And perhaps it's why the season finale is the most dramatic of all the episodes: it's when something irrevocably changes in the character's world or in his world-view.  So when the TV adaptation of Dresden Files aired on the SciFi Channel, it got even more episodic feeling and accidental feeling -- characters would accidentally run into Harry or Harry would brush up against their world without seeming to have any reason to -- so it's not all that surprising that it didn't last long on television in spite of how much fans loved the show.  The Harry Dresden I watched on TV encountered a lot of creatures and characters and nothing changed him or made him grow.  He was passive.  And I was bored.

Born of Shadows (The League)
A lot of paranormal romance embraces the episodic nature of the series.  Writers such as Sherrilyn Kenyon, JR Ward, and Gena Showalter have married the idea of the series with the "completeness" the romance genre requires of its novels -- each novel shows the trials, tribulations, and eventual success of one couple's romantic journey.  So they base a series of novels in the same world, and the main characters of the first novel become secondary characters in the next.  Then for the third novel, other characters who've been in the background become main characters.  And so on.  When these novels work well, the series world has some growing tension that each novel must deal with as well as "complete" the romance.  When these novels don't work so well, the "growing tension" feels more like a background game of Farmville where we're just waiting for the next Mystic Egg to be collected.

Halfway to the Grave (Night Huntress, Book 1)
The other was to approach paranormal romance (and these often straddle the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy), is to have a focus couple who remain the main characters throughout the entire series like Jeaneine Frost did in the Cat & Bones books (technically they're called the "Night Huntress" series).

This is a situation where I'd almost be willing to put money on Frost being offered a contract for the first two books with no idea if she'd ever get to write a third.  The first two books are brilliant.  The first one plunges us into a fascinating world and ends with a wild series of events that makes us want to read more.  The main character, Cat, grows tremendously.  But the character arc isn't finished -- neither is the romance story line -- until book two.  Then we get into book three, which is more of the same.  Book four felt like the author struggled to come up with a realistic challenge to the main characters' relationship, so she created a former lover from the past which Cat can't remember because the vampires wiped it from her mind.  Vampiric amnesia.  Convenient.  And not terribly intriguing.

This leads me to another series problem: ever growing powers.

In an attempt to up the stakes in each new book, the character discovers new super powers. The author must then explain why no one told the character (or the reader) about these powers in previous books -- a minor irritation that the author must solve.  The big irritation? The new extremes the characters must go to to avoid other characters using the same super powers on them.

A few books in, Frost introduces the notion that vampires can hear conversations a half mile away. Now all of our super-secret strategy sessions must happen in whispers while a TV is blaring so other vamps can't eavesdrop.  Next, vampires can fly. Next, vampires can alter memories. Next, some vampires can hear all human thoughts. Next ... next? I don't want to know what the next super power will be.  The contract with the finite world has been broken (tomorrow's post), and instead of the character growing and changing, her powers are growing and changing.  While it may keep some readers reading, it's not the reason I feel in love with the series back in the day.  One upping ones self becomes a dangerous business.

Highly Recommended