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 — 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. [Read more…]