Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Series and Character Development

Let's assume that publishers exist to give readers what they want*. When a publisher decides to bring out a book, it's on the basis that it's meeting reader desires and thus will sell in sufficient quantity to turn a profit.

Sometimes, though, readers' wants can be contradictory. Critics as far back as Aristotle have justly pointed out that conflict and character growth are essential for a compelling story. Think of Hamlet, for example, or the Ancient Mariner becoming "a sadder and a wiser man". But readers also like series: characters that they know and identify with, and whose company they want to enjoy repeatedly.

There is a tension for a writer who wants to satisfy both of these desires. Most books give us an arc of the protagonist's development, ending in death, achievement of a goal or perhaps a moment of realisation. That character's story is then essentially complete. To then bring them back for a sequel(s) can be hard to reconcile with a story arc which already complete.

Detective novels often get round this by minimising the character development angle. So Poirot comes back, time after time, to solve a different crossword puzzle. Writers like Ian Rankin or Brian MacGilloway, on the other hand, will have their detective evolving in real time, a more challenging approach. It works because there's always the crime, the bedrock of the plot, to come back to.

In fantasy, series are more difficult. What we think of as trilogies are invariably only one long story, chopped up into digestible portions. The protagonist will have the same story arc as if it were contained in a single novel. But genuine series are more difficult for the fantasy writer: Michael Moorcock's Elric novels essentially retread the same ground, to ever-diminshing effect, while his standalones (The War Hound and the World's Pain, or Gloriana) have much more vitality.

George R.R. Martin adopts the approach of telling one very long story in his Song of Ice and Fire but he also varies his viewpoint characters, to sometimes dizzying effect. To make a genuinely interesting series of books, this approach of changing the viewpoint character is highly effective. Not only can you surprise the reader by killing a few off, you avoid any one character becoming stale. Tyrion Lannister is by far my favourite character in the series, but I wouldn't want seven volumes of him.

Whatever genre a writer chooses, there is a trade-off between the extended series and character development. Failing to acknowlede this leads to "soap opera syndrome", where one character goes through trauma after trauma simply because they must have "storylines" to give them something to do--inavariably with little long-term consistency.

Given the entirely understandable desire of publishers to create a "brand" of their authors, each writer needs to decide of what that brand will consist. And if that brand is a series, how do you then avoid it becoming stale?

I am trying, in my Mondia novels, to create a brand in which the location is the common thread, not the characters. In The Dog of the North, Beauceron's story is complete at the end of the book. I may bring him back as a peripheral character in future books, but none of them will be "his" story. In trying to create something structurally like Shakespeare's history plays, I avoid becoming dependent on a single character, while giving the reader some familiar points of reference. That way I know that when, however many books down the line, Lady Cosetta reappears, some readers at least will give a little nod of recognition.

*Alternative hypotheses are that publishers manipulate what readers want, or that they provide what they themselves want. We won't examine these theories here.
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1 comment:

David Isaak said...

As you noted in a previous post, where you discussed Agatha Christie, there are different types of mystery novels. At one extreme we have the Poirots and Holmeses Nero Wolfes, where the characters are memorable but flat, and the stories are puzzles. At the other extreme we have real novels, where the mystery exists simply as a spine on which to drape character and moral quandaries. (To tell the truth, in the best of Lawrence Block's Scudder novels, I can't remember what the hell the plot was; I just remember what happened to the protagonist in finding his way through it.)

There's a similar thing with science fiction, although the sci-fi equivalent of puzzles is ideas (or sometimes just technology).

Fantasy I can't parse into such neat pairs, because fantasy is rather more diverse. Although the swords-and-sorcery model tends to dominate the sales figures, I sometimes think the 'genre' exists only as a catch-all for what doesn't fit neatly elsewhere. I mean, we have Gene Wolfe in the same box as Terry Brooks (and Italo Calvino and William Burroughs rubbing shoulders with Richard Adams and much of Kurt Vonnegut--though all those four have somehow manged to wangle their way out of the 'genre' section and over into "Fiction and Literature").

A series based on a milieu rather than a character is certainly do-able; Larry Niven did quite well with his Ringworld and Future History series (though I'm not a big Niven fan). And Mondia's a place I'd like to visit again, so I hope you hold to your plan.