Why, oh why, do we write (or read) long series?

A long thought-provoking post by Sarah Avery at Black Gate: The Series Series: Why Do We Do This To Ourselves? I Can Explain!

I have to marshal all my hubris to say this in public, but guys, I think I might have the answer. Seriously, not just an answer, but maybe the central answer.
Exploring the answer to this question about bulky stories, of course, will involve a couple of stories and a little bulk. It’ll also involve some claims about the postmodern condition that are guaranteed to inspire some argument — maybe some argument from you, which would be welcome and cool. Please stick with me. I promise I can make my case without resorting to a sequel.

Why Sarah Avery is a very different kind of writer than I am: she is an extrovert, and she favors large-cast series over more intimate, focused stories.

Why she is similar: she has trouble writing short.

what she does in this post: explore in depth some of the reasons that writers may tend to write long and one thing they might need to do in order to write shorter works.

I really don’t think you can squeeze in much of a supporting cast, unless those secondary characters are functioning more as props than as people. At most, you can have two realized characters, but that second can only be squeezed in if you’ve got serious writing chops. More characters than that, and you’re down to tricks that, as Elizabeth Bear likes to put it, hack the reader’s neurology: one telling detail that leads the reader to do all the work filling in a character around it. Okay, that’s a cool skill, one worth having, especially if you can do it so that the reader forgets s/he did all the work and remembers the story as if you’d written the character s/he filled in for you. I think I’ve pulled that trick off exactly once. Man, that was strenuous, and not in the ways I find exhilarating.

Alternatively, you can embrace the thinness of the secondary characters and make clear to your readers that you’ve piled up the story’s awesomeness in some other dimension of your storytelling. A friend who reads hard science fiction short stories almost exclusively has explained his very different readerly sweet spot, saying, “I usually prefer my characters to be cardboard cutouts, so they don’t get in the way of the wonder.” If that’s what you groove on as a reader, or if that’s the profile of the audience you’re going for, then the problem of keeping your word count down is solved.

Avery notes that a one-character story is particularly hard, and here I want to mention Merrie Haskell’s CASTLE BEHIND THORNS, which is a great novel in which, for about a third of the story, only one character is on stage. I do think that is an amazing trick to pull off. Then we are essentially limited to two characters for most of the rest of the book, which isn’t all that much easier.

Avery goes on to discuss character-driven vs community driven stories, and whether it’s possible to write a community-driven story that sticks to the pov of a single character, and declares it is, and I agree. That is seen in, for example, the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot, which comes across as epic fantasy even though the entire story is told from a single pov.

Okay, questions:

Is it possible to have a long series that is essentially driven by a single character and not by a community? Avery implies that the answer may be no. Does a series like the Mercy Thompson books count as that kind of series, given that the whole thing is from Mercy’s pov? My first impulse: I would say no, that Avery is right, the surrounding community is essential and the series counts as community-driven. Agree/disagree?

Can anyone think of a longer type of series where one character continues from book to book, but is not surrounded by a continual cast of secondary characters?

Anyway, this is a longer post, but well worth reading if you want to click through.

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4 thoughts on “Why, oh why, do we write (or read) long series?”

  1. The Dresden Files is more supporting evidence: a successful long series with a single main character (first-person, even), but he definitely does have a large continuing cast of supporting characters.

    On the other hand, some old SF adventure series might be counterexamples. I never read but one of the 20-odd Dumarest of Terra novels, but I think the hero was the only continuing character.

    Jack Vance’s (much better) Demon Princes series is 5 books and I don’t think any secondary character continues for more than 2: it’s held together by the main character’s driving goal to kill the eponymous Demon Princes, one at a time.

  2. Vance is an excellent example of an author whose awesomeness lies elsewhere than characterization, though — setting and prose style, mostly — so it doesn’t work against Avery’s thesis.

  3. Janny Wurts’ WARS OF LIGHT & SHADOW may qualify, partly because the antagonists were set up to live 500 years, and most of the rest of the cast isn’t. So they die off and new ones come in. Often relatives of the deceased, but not the same, and not necessarily having the same opinions and loyalties of their predecessors. There are a few more very long lived characters meddling, which does help with continuity, but mostly I wouldn’t call them communities. One bunch only ever had seven and is down by half, the other is warped religious order type with insane dictator on top. IN some ways I find that story irritating, but in others intriguing. So far the intriguing has won out. Partly because she knows where she’s going and how many books to get here. And things do change, although the ending pattern of same character being chased by enemies and just barely making it to safety has gotten really old.

  4. Interesting suggestions. Just having read the one Dresden Files book, I think it does seem like there is an important community. Wurts’ series sounds really interesting. Though also possibly a bit grim, given that important characters keep dying.

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