My youngest daughter recently celebrated her twelfth birthday. Aside from being an enormous Potterhead, she also enjoys young adult dystopian fiction (Insurgent, The Hunger Games, etc.).
Tonight, after dinner, she decided to embark on a mission to civilize me. Though I’ve seen The Hunger Games movie, and took both my daughters to see Mockingjay Part Two in the theatre last summer, I haven’t seen the other movies or read the books. This deficiency in my education seems (to my youngest daughter) like the height of barbarism, second only to my ignorance of whichever boy-band she’s fond of this week, and so we set out tonight to watch Mockingjay Part One.
In watching Mockingjay, though, one of the things that struck me was the challenge inherent in writing a series of related stories. I haven’t read the books, or seen the middle movie, so I can’t properly judge the particular merits of the Hunger Games books, but the problems of writing a series (I have learned) are several and difficult.
Perhaps the first most difficult challenge is the casting. A series of novels can structurally support a great many characters. Yet many writers seem to think they need to introduce all of those characters in the first book in the series, and then follow all of those characters in each book thereafter, putting them all at the crux of the story problem in each book.
But as I’ve mentioned before, a single novel can only support so many competing points of view. At epic length (circa 100,000 words), you would be lucky to be able to show as many as six different viewpoints in a single novel, and it requires a great deal of skill and planning to interweave six different subplots. At shorter lengths, a novel can only support two or three viewpoints and their subplots.
With a cast of characters of only two to six viewpoints, one quickly runs into the “Murder She Wrote” dilemma over the course of a series: the only way to challenge Jessica Fletcher’s skill as a detective is to kill someone each week, and the cozy little Maine hamlet of Cabot Cove quickly becomes the murder capital of the world. Similarly, if the characters at the beginning of the series continue to be instrumental to the outcome of stories at the end of the series, the problems in those later stories soon become increasingly improbable for the character (and the writer) to believably resolve.
Story Coupon Inflation
As another example of this “story coupon inflation,” let’s look at Superman. In his earliest incarnation, he was really fast, could jump really high, stop a bullet, and lift a common automobile over his head. Superman was superhuman, but one could still relate to the problems he faced: organized crime, Nazis, and the occasional mad scientist. Fast forward to 2013’s Man of Steel and now this wholesome farm-boy from America’s heartland is capable of causing 129,000 fatalities, at least a million casualties, and more than $700 billion dollars worth of property damage over a family feud gone horribly awry. “Devil Anse” Hatfield and “Ole Ran’l” McCoy couldn’t have caused that much destruction, even if they’d each had a tactical nuke at their disposal. And why is this so? Because Superman’s been fighting crime for almost 80 years, and in each episode of the series, the writers have to raise the stakes over the last episode.
Not to mention managing the alterations in a character’s relationships to other characters. I suspect this is why some writers routinely “clear the decks” of their series by killing off major characters from early installments and promoting early minor characters into major roles in later installments. This allows the “level” of the story-problems to remain reasonably consistent throughout the series, while introducing fresh viewpoints to deal with those new story-problems in new ways.
How to Face The Challenges of a Series
So these were challenges with which I was faced as I continued working on my own series, The Matter of Manred.
In Hedge King in Winter, Eowain thinks nothing of the Lady Eithne save that she’s a potential marriage partner and a damsel in distress. The rival cousin for the throne is sly in his treachery, only appearing “on stage” twice. The active villain in the piece, the chieftain of the bandits, never appears on stage at all.
To further develop a series such as this, one has to remember that the plight in which the characters find themselves needn’t always be externally motivated. Every single book in the series needn’t have an earth-shattering dilemma. While the stakes in any story should always seem like life-versus-death to the characters, one has to keep in mind that most people view public-speaking as a life-and-death kind of problem. What seems like life-and-death to the characters involved needn’t actually be that dire, so long as the characters perceive it to be so (and the reader sees this and believes it).
What matters to most readers is how characters’ relationships to one another are changed and altered over the course of a series, at least as much as what new and fantastical problems they encounter.
With this in mind, I published The Epistles of Eithne & Eowain, an epistolary short story that explores the evolution of the two romantic interests in my series, quite apart from whatever fantastic adventures they might otherwise be having in their lives. The adventures in their lives are secondary to the immediate concern in their correspondence, which is to learn about each other and determine if they’re potentially compatible marriage partners.
There’s also the challenge of maintaining characters from each book to the next—balancing stage time between new characters and old and “finding work” for characters who might not otherwise have any reason to be involved in the new story dilemma of a new book. I faced this problem in A Merchant’s Tale, which introduced five new characters faced with a reasonably simple plot problem: get from point A to point B without getting killed in between. This story would have worked just as well in some other setting, without any reference to the problems of Eowain, his cousin Tnúthgal, and his potential bride. But playing those major characters in minor supporting roles gave me an opportunity to provide greater context for the series, and draws these five relatively “normal” new characters into the web of intrigue and adventure that will weave the series together.
Bringing all these characters together, and introducing still more characters, was the challenge I faced in writing my latest story, the full-length action-adventure fantasy romance story of The Romance of Eowain. I had to answer the question of how all these characters were related to each other, what roles they would play in this story, and what challenges they would face that would seem realistic and believable, while still building on the events in the previous stories and setting up events in future stories. As one reader of the Wattpad installments commented: “I think what I like about this is that, even though it’s a love story, the characters have greater issues to face. I guess that makes their love story more realistic, and at the same time gives it color.”
That’s certainly what made it an interesting story to write.
What do you think is one of the greatest challenges in writing a series?