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Do it Again, Do it Again

When I first started reading books more complex than Green Eggs and Ham, I fell in love with series novels.  I raced through the school library’s collection of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  A friend loaned me the complete John Carter of Mars series – great fun when you’re twelve, though they don’t hold up very well – and another introduced me to the Chronicles of Narnia.  I even went through my sisters’ old Bobbsey Twins books, which can be taken as a sign of how little reading material we had in the house.

What drew me to series was the comfort of going back to a familiar world, one that was already alive in my imagination.  I looked forward to spending time with characters I’d already come to know and love.  Besides, even if you’re a voracious reader, it’s a commitment to read an entire novel, especially if you can’t bring yourself to abandon a book you’ve already started.  (I’ve mentioned before [1] — it’s down in the comments — that I regret not being able to give up on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.)  It was easier to commit to the next book in the series because I knew what I was getting into.

Now that I’m a grown-up editor, I can see why series also appeal to writers.  It’s tough to write any novel without falling in love with your characters, and once these people are alive in your imagination, you want to keep following their stories.  Besides, you can’t always really explore your characters in the space of one novel.  There’s also the practical fact that agents and acquisitions editors like the way series novels offer upside protection.  If your first novel hits big, your editor knows you have others in the pipeline.

But series books raise some questions that standalone novels don’t.  For instance, how do you keep your characters consistent as they age?  It’s part of J. K. Rowling’s genius that Harry and the Hogworts gang age plausibly throughout the series.  As they mature, their relationships grow more complex, their internal struggles are more gripping, and readers are drawn deeper into the series.

But this kind of growth isn’t always possible, which is why some writers to simply freeze their characters in time. 

Throughout the 41-year run of their novels, Nero Wolfe remained 59 and Archie stayed 35.  Archie never quite gets together with Lilly Rowan, Saul Panzer never advances beyond a hired operative, and Cramer remains perpetually annoyed.  This frozen timescape sometimes required some fudging.  Paul Whipple, a college student who appeared in 1938’s Too Many Cooks, shows up again as an adult in 1964’s A Right to Die, looking for help for his grown son.  He’s 26 years older.  Wolfe and Archie haven’t aged a day.

Still, even within the ageless framework, characters can’t help but grow – slowly deepening your characters is one reason to stick with a series.  Over the course of the Wolfe books, Wolfe becomes less loquacious (he was very prone to speeches in the early books) and more respectful of Archie.  Cramer may remain annoyed, but a mutual respect builds between him and Wolfe as well, especially after Cramer winds up on Wolfe’s side on a couple of cases.  And [spoiler alert] Orrie Cather, one of Wolfe’s periodic assistants, slowly grows more self-aggrandizing and amoral until, in A Family Affair, the final Wolfe novel, he turns out to be the killer and commits suicide on the stoop of the brownstone.

Letting your characters to age naturally has its risks, as well. In 1930’s Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple is already fairly advanced in years.  By 1971’s Nemesis, she is fantastically old.  When Patrick O’Brien started the Aubrey/Maturin series, set during the Napoleonic wars, he placed the first book, Master and Commander, in 1800 and allowed the chronology to develop naturally.  But by the sixth book, Fortune of War, set in June, 1813, he realized he was going to run out of Napoleonic War before he ran out of Aubrey/Maturin stories.  So several years pass in the world of the novels, including a long tour in the Pacific, until in the 18th book, The Yellow Admiral, readers find they are in November, 1813.

The greatest danger of writing a series is that your fans and publisher may demand that you keep bringing back popular characters after you’ve lost interest in them.  A number of great writers have ruined beloved characters by pushing them long past their natural shelf life.  Mark Twain clearly loved Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in the earlier novels, but when he resurrected them because he needed the money, the results – Tom Sawyer Abroad, and Tom Sawyer, Detective, were so awful some reviewers thought they were intended as parodies.  By Mostly Harmless, the fifth installment of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was clear that Douglas Adams had become bored with Arthur Dent and was simply looking for a way to kill him off.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did kill off Sherlock Holmes, but fans forced Doyle to bring him back.

Then there’s Agatha Christie’s troubled relationship with Hercule Poirot, whom she once referred to as “a detestable, bombastic, ego-centric little creep.”    Yet from his first appearance in 1920 in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot was immensely popular, so Ms. Christie felt obligated to keep churning out Poirot books.   She vented some of her feelings in 1945 in Curtain, in which she had Poirot murder someone, then commit suicide.  She didn’t publish the book at the time, but she made it part of her will that it would be published posthumously, as a final act of revenge against the ego-centric little creep.

You can see this animosity in a lot of the Poirot books.  The novels that most Christie fans consider her weakest – The Big Four, The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Third Girl – are Poirots.  Of course, Ms. Christie was a brilliant storyteller, so some of her most successful mysteries are also Poirots.  But even with those, particularly the later ones, you get the impression they succeeded despite Poirot rather than because of him.

So if you have the urge to keep following your characters because you love them and want to see what they become, then commit to a series of books.  But as Ms. Christie said in her essay, “How I came to dislike Hercule Poirot,” “I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers: be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!”

So what attracts you to series novels?  What attracts you to them?  What do the offer that standalone novels don’t?

About Dave King [2]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [3].

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