Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why people love a series.


I'm reading a book on Byzantine art. It's a big thick book and I've read it before. There is a strange sad moment when I realize I'm coming to the end of a good book. First, I'll have to find something else to read, second, it's like I don't want to leave that world. The world of Byzantine art is a tight little world, completely removed from my everyday world. It represents an escape from humdrum reality.

This is probably why a series is better than a stand-alone novel: people like the world you have created, and don't want to leave it.


World-building isn’t just for science fiction and fantasy. I have to thoroughly understand the world of Paris in the 1920s to write a mystery novel set in that place and time. If I do it well, the reader enters into that world and lives in it for however short a time.

My mother loves romance novels. She doesn’t read erotica. To please a reader like my mother, a book with romance is far preferable to a book with erotica. Not every character in a romance novel is particularly likeable, and neither is every character in a work of erotic fiction a bad person or the sort of person my mother might not want to meet. She never goes there, because she’s not interested.

My grandfather loved horses, and so therefore he loved Dick Francis novels, and Louis L’Amour novels, and Max Brand novels. Why he and my grandmother also had books on the shelf like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, or Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, or Ross Macdonald, or Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne mysteries is another question.

In some ways genre fiction serves a need for a kind of intellectual adventure, maybe even a moral adventure where all the generally accepted standards of civilized behaviour go out the window, and a new world is created where the six-gun rules, or where the protagonist cannot get any help from duly-constituted authority, (a common element in both westerns and Dick Francis.) Readers make a quick mental shift from their mundane daily existence to a far different place where the problems and solutions are not such a trade-off. In daily life, sometimes there are no good and easy solutions. We must often choose the lesser from a group of evils, and oh, wouldn’t it be nice sometimes if there were only two choices! But in some ways the world of fiction is a less complex world where the protagonist is written so as to be more mobile, and the needs of the body or even the family are downplayed.

John Wayne never had a home.

My dad always used to make me laugh.

“John Wayne never had a home—he always slept in the back of the sheriff’s office.” In some ways that’s very true.

Travis McGee had his cabin cruiser, Mike Shayne lived alone, Perry Mason had Della Street and Paul Drake, but again he was a bachelor. In a Dick Francis novel, the leading character usually met a nice woman, but generally they lived a more solitary, more mobile life where certain responsibilities were simply absent. Their weekly pay cheque is rarely in doubt, hence the rich and successful protagonists like Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd. The romantic elements, which is maybe a bit different from what we mean when we say ‘romance,’ in a Louis L’Amour novel, included a solitary protagonist arriving in some remote town and almost invariably making some sort of declaration for the heart and hand of the most beautiful (or often the only beautiful) woman in town.

Single males are mobile.

When we think of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, or Hercule Poirot and Hastings, we are almost invariably referring to single males, but of course that reflects some ease of writing. It’s harder to deal with a family man. James Bond was married in one book, and as I recall the lady was killed fairly quickly by the author. But Ian Fleming had to cut Bond loose, in order for him to have the mobility required for a fellow to go gallivanting all over the world fighting international conspiracies to start World War Three or whatever.

Readers don’t understand these limitations. They don’t care about them at all. What they want is a kind of escape, a kind of adventure, a glimpse of some exotic locations, in short they want to be entertained. The readers' imaginations are not nearly so limited as our ability to write an entire world, a good plot and some good characters and keep it in the 60,000 to 110,000-word range.

In terms of multi-generational historical sagas, these books are often 300,000 words, or end up as a series of thick books that draw a very loyal audience that loves that world, whether it is Regency, or the sort of world that Jane Austen talked about, or other types of stories that readers love. Even children’s books, ‘The Borrowers’ comes to mind, can often lead to a series that people love and simply must have.

Readers love the worlds that we have created.

Readers come back to an author because they like the worlds that they have created, and want to be there as much as possible. It’s not wise to disparage reader’s tastes, although some authors seem to do it frequently.

But bear in mind that teenage girls who love the ‘Twilight’ series of books will probably have them or similar books on their shelves thirty years later.

Laugh if you want, but you’d be better off trying to write something for an identifiable audience somewhere, and if you have any success at all in building a readership, be grateful and just keep going. When Jack Higgins mastered the WW II espionage/suspense genre, or Alistair Maclean mastered the thriller, or Robert Ludlum mastered his branch of the craft, they also mastered their understanding of their readers. They didn’t just quit and walk away. All of their work has certain common elements.

“Hey! I loved your book. When is the next one coming out?”

That is a pretty good sign that you are on to something. When I think of someone like Alistair Maclean, it doesn’t even have to be a series, it merely has to be in the right genre. That’s good genre fiction.

Comments are always welcome.

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