In the absence of much else of moment in my life this week, I thought I’d expand on a theme I began to play with a few weeks ago, especially since Jeff’s post yesterday reignited the theme in my mind. His point about a series making promises and its author having a responsibility to keep to the original premise hits the nail squarely on the head. He also talks about growth and change, and that’s where I’m going to pick up the baton.
I’ve never attempted to write a series, not even of short stories, so what insights I may have to offer are solely from the point of view of the reader. And I don’t really have insights – just questions about how it’s done, and a lot of admiration for authors who do it well. I discovered early in my seven-year publishing career that booksellers, and therefore publishers, like series fiction, largely because it generates sales and keeps the backlist alive; it follows as night the day that the reason for this is that readers, aka book buyers, also like them.
So my first question is, what makes a reader latch on to a series and keep coming back for more?
For me one answer stands head-high above anything else: a protagonist I can warm to. It doesn’t matter where I pick up the series: first title, most recent or somewhere in the middle; if the lead character is someone I feel I’d like to know, to have a conversation with and look for common ground, maybe commiserate with when their personal life goes pear-shaped (Merrily Watkins, Alison Kerby, Bev Morriss), or trust to get me out of a sticky situation (Jack Reacher, Eve Dallas, Andy Dalziel and possibly Peter Pascoe), or is just the kind of person who exerts a strange fascination (Tony Hill, Temperance Brennan), I go in search of other books in the series, or look forward to the next one when I’ve caught up. The ones I’ve listed are only examples; I can think of upwards of a dozen other series on my current wishlist which fit the bill. It helps if there are other characters I care about too, but it’s always the leading player who reels me in.
More than once I’ve been hooked by one series by an author, and less than entranced by a second or third. One of my favourite authors was persuaded to abandon a series which made me laugh and cry, and for me the replacement doesn’t have the same grab factor.
It’s sad, because it could work against the author: if a reader comes to the less attractive series first, the other one may never get a look in. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often, at least not to me.
My second question requires a little more thought: how does the author of a series ring the changes, make each book different without compromising those ongoing elements which keep pulling the reader back?
Different authors achieve it in different ways. Some keep ramping up the gore factor: not my favourite approach by any means; it strikes me as lazy. But then I probably wouldn’t be reading many of the series anyway. Others introduce new ongoing characters to the mix, and bring them centre stage now and again. Yet others find something new for the character to do each time – stating the obvious, maybe, but harder than it sounds, especially with police procedurals. (Check out Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne series as a prime example of how to get it right.) Maverick heroes have it easier in that regard.
Occasionally an author realizes that a particular series is self-limiting, and stops before it loses all credibility. I had to admire Ann Cleeves when she called a halt on her Shetland quartet without being tempted to stretch it beyond the four she intended, despite its having won awards and plaudits, not to mention a TV series. A series of murder mysteries set in the kind of place where shoplifting is crime enough to make headlines can only be strung out so far, but at least there were several different islands she could make use of. When I heard there’s now a fifth title, I blinked a little; it will take an author of Ann’s calibre to make it work.
That’s the trouble with series, isn’t it? Credibility. Big-city police procedurals with a high body count I can swallow; and itinerant PIs or maverick heroes cover a lot of distance, so the bodies can be well spaced out. But for many years, the joke around Oxford was that, with four murders a week when the TV series was running, Inspector Morse made this civilized university city the most dangerous place in England. Now they’ve even retired Morse’s sidekick, so Oxford residents (of whom my daughter is one, so I have a vested interest) can lie easy in their beds.
And don’t get me started on the sleepy villages of Midsomer, where the local constabulary must work an eight-day week to solve all the suspicious (and ingenious) deaths. I’m sure the US has similar places where no self-respecting fictional character would want to set foot in case s/he becomes a victim of random slaughter. I do seem to come across a lot of serial killer novels set in Arizona...
I think the real answers to my two questions are that there are no definitive answers. I know what works – and what doesn’t – for me. Maybe for you it’s something different entirely.