Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Series Character, Part 1

When I was a kid I think my favorite kind of reading was the "series." John Carter of Mars, Conan, Travis McGee, The Sacketts, the Black Stallion, The Three Investigators, The Hardy Boys, etc, etc. When I first started writing, and started thinking about a novel, I immediately thought "series." My first western, the unpublished "The Bear Paw Valley," was conceived as an introduction for the gunfighter character of Quint Maclang. He was modeled quite a bit on the youngest of the Sackett brothers, Tyrell. Well, I was the youngest of brothers so why not?

The "Maclang" western series never got off the ground, but the Maclang fantasy series did. I've now written four books about Ruenn Maclang, who would be Quint Maclang's nephew. Three of these have been published and a fourth is supposedly scheduled for it. I'm about 33,000 words into book 5, which will be the last one for a while, I think.

One thing I've started worrying about is repeating myself. The first book, Swords of Talera, was an introduction, and then books 2 and 3, Wings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera, dealt with a war against a sorceress named Vohanna. Books 4 and 5, Wraith of Talera, and Gods of Talera, deal with another war against a sorcerer named Vessoth, who was Vohanna's husband. There's a lot of new adventures in the 4th and 5th books, but there is some commonality as well.

As I was thinking about this the last few days, I stumbled on a link to a blog where John D. MacDonald is talking about writing Travis McGee. I'm reading this closely and giving it some thought. He certainly knew the pitfalls and promise of the series character. One thing I found interesting was that he said it was harder to write first person stories than third person ones. I don't know. It doesn't really seem that way to me. The restrictions of the first person tale help me quite a lot, I think.

Anyway, I'm going to have more about writing a series character as I give it more thought. As readers, are you a big fan of series? Or would you prefer stand alones? For those who read series, do you commonly find that the formula starts to pale after a while?

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19 comments:

R.T. said...

Great posting, Charles! Oh, I so fondly remember the Hardy Boys! As for reading series, I think they are the baited hook that is irresistible to readers; mixing metaphors, they are like potato chips (i.e., no one can eat only one). But they are a two-sided coin for writers; I've heard that writers can get weary of their serial characters (e.g., Doyle got tired of Holmes, killed him, but had to revive him because of readers' and publishers' demands), but -- at the same time -- serial characters over a span of linked novels can be a lucrative marketing tool and a source of comfort for writers. Which side of the coin works for you?

pattinase (abbott) said...

My grandson chooses what he will read based on how many books are in the series. The luxury of knowing you can read about a character for months and months is enticing. He has one now with over 100 books.

Tom Doolan said...

I'm quite a fan of series characters, with Mack Bolan being one of my all-time favorites (as far as novels go). I think the biggest strength of a series character is that when you pick up subsequent books, the character's origins are either quickly glassed over, or missing all together (though the best way is to hint at it during the novel, at moments when it has baring on the current situation). This leaves more room for the current story. Do series characters fall in a rut sometimes? Sure. Even when you have a stable of writers working under a pseudonym. But, a well-written story can have a nearly identical plot to a previous work, and still be enjoyable.

sage said...

When I was in high school, I read a lot of series, but not so much as an adult. One exception is the fiction of Wendell Berry which centers around the fictional town of Port Williams, KY. I think I'd prefer stand alone books.

Charles Gramlich said...

R.T. the best thing for me in writing a fantasy series character is getting explore large sections of the fantasy world. That is so much fun for me.

Patti, when I was younger I liked discovering that too.

Tom, that is true about similar plots still being enjoyable. There aren't that many plot choices anyway.

Sage, I can't decide between stand alone and series. I read and love both

Bruce Boston said...

Depends on the series. With MacDonald, and Ruth Rendell, I like the series, but think their best work is in their stand-alones. With Ross Macdonald, I think the series novels are better.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bruce, interesting. The early Travis McGee books are some of my faves of JDM, although individual titles do stand out. I've actually not read Ross MacDonald much. My favorite ERBs are definitely the John Carter books. Of course, he tried to turn most o f his stuff into a series.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I read many of those same series. I probably read more series now, but either will do if the story is good.
It's tough to keep a series fresh. That's why I stopped at three for my Cassa series. Of course, since I kept jumping ahead twenty years, I figured no one would want to read Cassa: The Geritol Years.

Angie said...

I like both, when they're well done.

Series books are cool because if you liked the first one, then getting more of what you liked is fun. There's an anticipation to picking up the next book in a series you love that isn't there with a stand-alone. And a good writer keeps adding to the characterization and worldbuilding as the series goes on, because they have more space and scope for them.

Which is where series like Nancy Drew -- and I'm presuming similar series like the Hardy Boys, which I didn't read -- fall short. The ND series is very episodic. Once the series settled down with an established cast of characters, which took three or four books, it was all same-old-same-old after that. Nancy was perpetually eighteen, her friends never changed (except for the parachute-friends who dropped in to give her a mystery in a particular book, and were never seen again), her hobbies changed to suit each mystery and were never seen again, etc. Even as a kid, this bugged me, and I gave up forty-some books in.

My favorite teen-girl-detective series, in contrast, had none of these problems. Trixie Belden started out at age thirteen, and as you read the books, she actually aged, she made some new friends (who stuck around), we found out more about her home area and its history, and the series followed a realistic progression of years and seasons. Trixie had birthdays and holidays happened in order. Maybe Nancy's mysteries were more exciting and glamorous on the surface, but the world and characters in Trixie's world are what kept me reading, and got me to buy as many of the newer books as I could find when I found out in my forties that there were more.

Sometimes you can tell that a writer is cranking out series books because it's selling rather than because they want to. Piers Anthony has come right out and said that he meant the Xanth books to be a trilogy, and bitterly resented his publisher for making him keep on with them, so long as they kept hitting the Times list. And I can think of a few romance series that more and more over-the-top and shark-jumpy as they went on; you can practically see the golden handcuffs on the writer. It takes a lot to get me to quit a series once I've started -- even if my enjoyment goes down, I'm ridiculously hopeful that things will pick up again if I just hang on long enough :P -- but even I've bailed on some of these.

Angie

jodi said...

Charles-I've read series that I loved and ones that did get redundant. I think that each book needs to be able to stand alone in order to prevent this.

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, yes, I have seen series go past three and be very good but many don't make it

Angie, I feel that way about series too, in that I will keep reading even if a few in a row aren't that good. I keep hoping for a return to form. I have seen a few writers actually peak in a series later on in the series. Ken Bulmer's Dray Prescot series is an example. the best books were those in the teens, from about 12 through 20

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I prefer to read standalone novels though I have enjoyed series like Perry Mason and Lew Archer. It depends on my mood, really. I have no hard and fast rule about one or the other. Great post!

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, there are certainly a lot of good stand alones out there.

Oscar said...

I lean toward the stand-alones, but I do like a good series character.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, a lot of good westerns run in series.

Erik Donald France said...

Series characters are fun. Sometimes (speaking of movie remakes and reboots) it's interesting to see how character conceptions morph from one generation to another. Robinson Crusoe on Mars . . .

I also like the "loosely speaking" series character archetypes, like Clint Eastwood's in Sergio Leone films. Other big ones would include Sherlock Holmes (how many variations can there be?????) and James Bond. Another thing that's fun a la Balzac & Zola is minor characters becoming major characters in other books.

Stand alones also work for me.

G. B. Miller said...

When I'd first got serious about my fiction reading when I was about my son's age (22), I loved reading long series fiction, especially those that covered multiple generations (the White Indian series was one such). Made it feel like the characters weren't getting stale.

Some genres work better with a particular character repeating themselves (mysteries for example) than others.

This year, I read a couple Walter Mosley character mystery series, which I thought were really good.

Stand alones will always have a special place for me, but overall, my fiction reading leans heavily towards series. Except Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. That was just a major waste of about 3 years.

Father Nature's Corner

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yes, the minor characters taking over in other books. That's a nice way to do a series.

G. B., Lana felt the same way about Wheel of Time. I managed to avoid them fortunately.

Chris said...

I've gone up and down. I do know that I am very much DOWN on first person crime/noir/detective/whatever you want to call them books. I'm sure that will change at some point though.