Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On long-running series

With the release of A Memory of Light, Robert Jordan's (and, ultimately, Brandon Sanderson's) Wheel of Time series drew to a long-awaited close. Having started reading the series back in 1994, I was understandably excited about how the series would wrap up. So excited, in fact, that I set aside several months of time to completely re-read the series from start to finish.

Three months later, I was ready to throw all of the books away.

I had grown incredibly sick of his portrayal of women. I got tired of the viewpoint switching just when things got interesting. If Nynaeve gripped her braid in one more white-knuckled fist, I was going to write a fanfic with the express purpose of having very painful and degrading things happen to her. The writing style, which hadn't bothered me too severely before, just ended up grating on me.

I've noticed this a couple of other times when I've opted to plow through a long series. The Robotech novelizations were interesting, but after twenty books of very light reading I ended up less than thrilled with them. And David Weber's Honor Harrington series... I never even got all the way through that one. After reading an entire paragraph devoted to the nuances in emotion that the titular character gleaned from a single look, I was ready to throw my e-reader at the wall. "He had a stern look in his eye, but beneath that she could see the glimmer of mischievousness, buoyed by their past relationship. But she could also see the sorrow in them over her recent loss, and felt gratitude at the sincere regret she read in his eyes as well." I exaggerate, but only a bit. After the umpteenth description along those lines, I simply could not continue - that series of novels stands today as one of the only ones that I will not finish after having started reading them.

The issue is not with the writers themselves - the respective authors are much more accomplished than I, and have earned massive respect for their accomplishments. Nor do I think I could do a better job - that's not the point of this post. Instead, what this tells me is that a long-running series can simultaneously be an author's most beneficial characteristic as well as one of their most detrimental assets.

The key is in the subconscious patterns that evolve from works of any particular length. While the inter-gender disputes in the Wheel of Time were at first a minor annoyance behind a novel fantasy tale, over the course of the series they became much more pronounced.  Honor Harrington's empathy was a character trait that had evolved from events in the series, but after a while it came to dominate her every interaction with other characters. Terry Goodkind's objectivist philosophy grew from the ideas behind the actions of Zed and Richard into an entire guiding philosophy of the series - something that was most certainly not evident before the publication of Blood of the Fold.

I could go on, but I think my point is made. After a certain number of words, these traits become more pronounced, the characteristics take up more and more page space. Why does this happen? Is it simply something with which the author can fill page space in a familiar manner? Or is it a symptom of how the books are consumed? For example - if I read one Wheel of Time book a month, instead of one after the other, would I have been as emotionally invested in hating the gender portrayals at the end?

Maybe I'm just hard to please. And if so, what does that mean for me as a writer? Is there some day where a reader of my work will send me an angry letter detailing how I am everything that is wrong with humanity? Is that, necessarily speaking, a bad thing?

Maybe this is just a reason to avoid long-running series in general. Either writing or reading them.


  1. I don't think you're hard to please, and I think this is one of the reasons we both like to write singular novels. I used to write fantasy stories, and entertained the idea of writing a long series, but then it crossed my mind that writing about the same characters, book after book, might be difficult. How do you continue to describe them and keep it fresh? How do you avoid using the same quirks and nuances over and over and over again? Ultimately, I'd rather start with a clean slate than look like the guy who's just beating a dead horse.

    That isn't the case with all series, mind you, I'm just saying I wouldn't want that outcome for myself.

    1. Glad to hear I'm not the only one :)

      I have aspirations of space opera writing myself, as that's what I grew up reading, but after a while there's only so far you can take the characters believably.

      Of course to counterbalance this is the fact that the best way to sell more books is to have more of them, and series tend to sell as a batch. Maybe that's why the triptych is such a popular form! I think I might be able to manage a trilogy without getting repetitive or annoying...