Thursday, April 23, 2009

What makes a series work?

What makes a series work?
Elizabeth Zelvin

I love mystery series. I want to fall in love with a protagonist and get to know his or her family and friends. I want my favorite series to go on and on. I wish that Dorothy L. Sayers hadn’t stopped writing books about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane—even though my rational side knows that the arc of their love story had been completed, and later books might have been disappointing. I don’t want Laurie R. King to give up on Kate Martinelli, even though I know the Mary Russell books, which I also love, are more popular. I don’t want Charlaine Harris to give up on Harper Connelly, even though the whole world now knows Sookie Stackhouse, whom I also love, thanks to the success of True Blood on TV. I’m in there for the duration with Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti.

There are two kinds of series: those in which the characters stay the same, and the reader derives pleasure from the familiar voice and characters and satisfaction from the way the new story meets their expectations, and those in which the characters change as their lives unfold and as they mature emotionally. Some of the “same” series are phenomenally successful. Stephanie Plum is always going to destroy a car and never going to choose between Joe Moretti and Ranger. Spenser is always going to crack wise with Hawk and blow away some bad guys at the end without so much as a slap of the wrist from the law.

Guido Brunetti falls into this category in that he’s always going to solve the crime, but justice will elude him, thanks to some aspect of the way things are—corrupt, bureaucratic, irrational—in Leon’s Italy and Venice. However, the richness of Brunetti’s family life and relationships with his colleagues at work draws me back time after time, to see what Paola is going to make for dinner, what Brunetti is reading (I heard Leon speak at a New York book launch a couple of years ago, and she says Brunetti reads whatever she is reading while she writes the book), and what aspect of officialdom or technology Signorina Elettra will sabotage next.

Most of my favorite series have protagonists who go through enormous changes from book to book. Sharon McCone started out as an investigator in a Sixties-utopian law commune and has ended up with her own state-of-the-art agency and a lot of real estate. She’s held onto her circle of old friends—one of the traits that endear a character to me—and gone through some disappointing relationships to get to her current unconventional but happy marriage.

Deborah Knott, though, takes the prize for an endearing social circle. When I’m reading one of Maron’s books, I find myself longing for eleven brothers and the kind of family that sits on the back porch playing and singing traditional music. (I do sing and play guitar, but my mother’s reaction to high lonesome was, “Can’t you play something more cheerful?”) Kate Shugak’s circle of friends has also stood the test of time as she’s gone through some agonizing times as well as some hilarious ones.

One of my goals, or let’s say dreams, in my own first book was to create not only one believable character, my recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, but three—his best friend, Jimmy the computer genius, and Jimmy’s girlfriend, Barbara the world-class codependent. Barbara and Jimmy have their own relationship, which I hope to develop as the series goes on. And the friendship among the three of them is my fantasy ideal of friendship, just as I imagine Deborah Knott’s family may be to Maron. (I believe the fiddling-on-the-porch family she modeled that aspect of the Knotts on is a cousin’s, not her own.)

In the second book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this fall, Bruce will leave the struggle with drinking mostly behind and make some hard choices about his relationships. In the, I won’t tell you. I hope by that time you’ll be attached to my characters and want to read the whole series.


Sheila Connolly said...

It's a challenge, isn't it? Evanovich can get away with her successful but static character, but I'm not comfortable with a character who doesn't learn from experience.

We want our readers to love the people and the worlds we create--but change is part of life. So we try to strike a balance, to keep the best of the old and to mix in a little new.

caryn said...

It's interesting the way you divided the series. I've given up on the Plum books, and reading your blog I was trying to decide if it was the sameness that ended it for me. I don't think so exactly. I love the cast of characters-mostly. I could have done without her sister and husband completely. And even though it's repetitive, I don't mind the car fires and outrageous spandex outfits of the office person-I can't remember her name. I think it's that the books are all bascially the same story. And Stephanie never learns. She does the same dumb things every single book.
So I guess I'd like to be able to return to the same characters, have some of the story elements carry over, but I want the protag to learn from her mistakes and for the actual story to be different. Really different-not just the same basic story dressed differently.

Sandra Parshall said...

It really does come down to a choice between repeating the same thing that's been successful in the past or letting the characters develop and move on to different kinds of experiences. And I think a lot depends on whether the books are comic, like Evanovich's, or serious.

I stopped reading the Stephanie Plum books because they were all the same and the character's inability to change exasperated me. (Notice I still think of Stephanie as a character, not a person.) But obviously millions of readers continue to read the books because they love Stephanie just as she is.

I love Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott novels. Deborah is a real person to me. I love seeing changes take place in her life. I love seeing her married at last to a good man who appreciates her. I always enjoy visiting her world.

Some series lose me, though, when changes occur in the characters' lives. In one series I used to love, the two police detective protagonists got married and promptly became entangled in a tiresome child custody fight over the son of one character, and that took a toll on the marriage, and... well, I see enough of this stuff in real life. I don't want to see it in mystery novels.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy's indicated the knife edge we walk--making each story truly different, as Caryn says, and subplots are one way to do that, without alienating the reader. I've forgiven Dana Stabenow for doing what she did to Kate Shugak's Jack, but I don't like the way Kate treats Jim Chopin and come to each book hoping that will change. Different kind of example: I'm currently rereading one of Lee Martin's wonderful Deb Ralston police procedurals. The author got more and more interested in Deb's conversion and put more and more Mormon lore into the books. I think I read somewhere that the series disappeared because the publisher didn't like that, but Martin wanted to write what she wanted to write. I have to fight the temptation to do that with 12-step recovery in my own series--but I plan to come out in favor of mystery storytelling every time. As my characters get further into recovery, I want them to become less doctrinaire, not more.

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Liz! I love Donna Leon's books, and I've managed to stay with Stephanie Plum up until the last book. I think the books are getting a little too repetitious. We ask a lot as readers, though, demanding that the books stay familiar but change enough to keep us interested. Now that I have my own series, I don't just see it as a reader, but now from the writer's point of view. And I'm full of admiration for the writers that keep series going year after year, and keep them fresh.

Anonymous said...

I haven't given up yet on Stephanie Plum for the simple reason that she makes me laugh -- even if the joke is pretty much the same book after book. I wouldn't want to read many books that formulaic, but one a year is just fine. Maybe I expect less of Stephanie (and Evanovich)??

I am more apt to give up on a series when I can no longer believe that the main character continues to trip over dead bodies, no matter how much personal growth he/she experiences in the process.

Eileen Key said...

Earlene Fowler's Benni Harper is one of my favorite characters. Thanks for an interesting post.