The Persistent Character Problem
Sometimes, readers fall in love with a writer’s characters. It’s hard to say who the reader falls in love with, actually. Sometimes a character becomes imbued with bits and pieces of an author—the author’s quick sense of humor, his or her sense of honor, or the author’s eloquence. So the author’s construct, the author’s alter-ego, gains some notoriety, and readers find themselves eager to spend time in the presence of this imaginary character.
We’ve all fallen for it. Many readers can point to a character like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Scarlet O’Hara and tell you with all honesty that they are completely captivated by that character. So they want to read stories about that person over and over again.
The problem is, as I’ve said before, that if we as authors allow our characters to grow, eventually the character’s story demands to be told in full. This means that the major conflicts must be overcome, or else the character must suffer the ravages of those conflicts. Either way, the tale reaches its conclusion.
Because of this, you as an author probably can’t sustain a character in a series for very long. Certainly, you’ll find that it is difficult to spread a tale over ten or eleven books in a series.
So when you write a series, there are a number of steps that you can take to keep it going.
1) You can decide that some conflicts will not be resolved, period. For example, let’s say that you’re going to write a romantic comedy in which the audience is going to fall in love with your male protagonist, a detective, and will also love his loyal partner, who happens to be a woman. You can decide that though they may flirt, though they may be in love, they will never resolve that conflict in any book. It just can’t be done. As soon as it happens, the readers will say, “Okay, now they’ll live happily ever after,” and the readers will drop out of the series. A few years back, we saw this happen with Moonlighting, a series that had a flirtatious romance that lasted for years.
We see the same problem in the modern series Bones. The writers love to tease us, but they know that if love leads to marriage, the series will drop off the charts. So this technique has some advantages, but the truth is that it leaves the audience feeling unfulfilled. In other words, the series will become episodic in nature, and eventually, I think that the audience feels as if the tale wears thin since the major conflicts are never resolved.
2) A second technique is to parse out the conflicts. For example, if you look at Harry Potter, Rowling did something masterful: she started a series with an 11-year-old, a book for middle-grade readers. Over the course of the series, each year the character grew, completing a school year so that by book three, we were officially now a young-adult series. By the end of the series, we were out of the young-adult stage and into the official level of “adult audience.” So Rowling was able to parse out conflicts—resolving a new mystery in each series as Harry Potter discovers his own past and his own destiny. In some ways, he never does get to grow up. Yet we know in the end that he will be all right. He’s grown through the challenges of his life. I think that all in all, Rowling had the best solution to the persistent character problem. The difficulty here, of course, is that you need to start with a character who is sufficiently young so that you can age him or her over the course of a dozen novels if needed.
3) A third technique is to populate your novel with multiple protagonists, perhaps a dozen of them, and tell the stories of them all. You can see this being done in novels by Robert Jordan, Larry McMurtry, and even myself. Handling a series this way does allow the author to create a huge and diverse cast, with characters that are old, young, male, and female, and this can be a plus since it allows the author to try to interest a wider audience than a single protagonist can.
Yet the tradeoff is costly. The series will often balloon out of control, as has happened with a number of contemporary fantasy authors. In an attempt to keep the stories interesting and let the characters grow, the author tries to expand the series by adding new characters—until there is such a large cast that the readers begin to long for their favorites, to return to those earlier novels where a favorite storyline unfolded.
As an author concentrates on one character, sometimes for an entire book, other characters may get lost. For example, in my novel, Chaosbound, I spend an entire book following the adventures of my character Borenson, his wife, and his children. Now, mind you, in a poll that had been on my site for some time, I asked readers who their favorite character in the series is. The answer, overwhelmingly, was Borenson, and over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten several letters asking, “Now wait a minute? Whatever happened to Sir Borenson? When’s he coming back?” The truth is that he plays a pivotal role at the end of the series, so I had to tell the end of his story. Yet I’ve gotten a couple of letters from angry readers over it. One of them said, “I’ve only read the first thirty pages of the novel, but I can tell that it’s going to be terrible. Why should I want to read about Borenson?”
So in trying to satisfy the readers who love that character, I ended up losing some readers who feel more attached to other characters. That happens, I think, in every instance where a writer tries to handle a large cast of viewpoint characters. I’ve heard fans complain bitterly that Jordan had ignored their favorite character for the past couple of books, etc.
Beyond that, I’ve seen authors compound the problem by making the mistake of “trimming the cast.” Thus, you’ll see authors killing off longtime protagonists in an effort to get the series back under control. In such cases, I think that the cure is worse than the ailment, and readers are likely to feel betrayed and bewildered.
4) There are some interesting techniques that authors have used that are rather uncommon. Orson Scott Card, for example, in his Ender series has managed to re-tell the same story from different viewpoints, and he has done it quite successfully, as is befitting a talented writer.
A few years ago, a novelist told a series of stories that were, in essence, the same story, told the eyes of a single character, but the tales were set in alternate universes. In short, the tales had persistent characters, but the worlds changed—some being dystopian, others utopian—and as they did, the conflicts in the characters’ lives changed, so that people who were bitter rivals on one world were the best of allies on another.
So once again, when you decide to create a series, there are some real challenges that you’ll have to face when deciding how to handle the persistent character/persistent world problem. Hopefully, this series of articles will help you figure out how to write a long, intricate series that is both powerful and emotionally satisfying.