In part one of this series, Fantasy Book Series: A Personal History, I discussed some of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to start reading new fantasy series in recent years. Some of it was to do with the length of some series and the long waits between books in others, while some where ruined by over-powered characters or magic systems that drowned out the characters altogether.
So now that I’m steadily working my way back to liking science fiction and fantasy series, what is it about them that I enjoy, and that keeps me coming back for more?
Character- I’ve heard it said that great character can carry a lousy plot, but a lousy character will never carry the best of plots. I agree with this. If I’m going to be spending several hours reading a book, I don’t want to read about characters who are boring, or that I hate. Or else, if I’m going to hate them, then make sure I’ll love to hate them.
Good, evil, or somewhere in between, I love characters with complexity and depth. I want them to want things even if they don’t know why they want them, and I want them to grow and change in realistic ways. You don’t want static in your TV reception, so why would it be acceptable for characters in a long series of books to be static, remaining the same across two or more books?
Think about it like this: if you were going to take a long road trip in a car with a broken radio, would you invite someone who has spark and is proactive about things, or would you take someone who has the personality of white bread and just lets things happen to them? You’re going to be stuck with them for a long time, so choose wisely.
(hint: I’d pick clever, well-read Hermione in a heartbeat and let the emotionless Bella Swan keep her sparkly, emo vampire)
Brevity is the Soul of Wit– Not to knock Brandon Sanderson, but he writes what one of his fellow podcasters on Writing Excuses once called ‘chihuahua killers’. Oathbringer, the third installment of his Stormlight Archive is 1,243 pages. When I looked at my centenary edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which has all three of the books bound into one volume with illustrations by Alan Lee, the entire story was told in 1,036 pages.
The entirety of The Lord of the Rings— which, with a lot of the story edited out, still gave us a film trilogy spanning more than nine hours– is shorter than one volume of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. I’ve read the first two books of that series, but I felt every last one of those endless page turns. It took…soooo… long…..
On the other hand, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which has 16 books and a couple of novellas, was a series I flew through in a month and a half. The longest of the books is about 570 pages long, but they feel much shorter than that because Bujold stays with her main characters instead of wandering off to see what this or that tertiary character is doing. She also sticks to the action of her primary plots and fills the pages with witty dialogue. I never noticed the length of the books or audiobooks because I was so wrapped up in what Miles would do next that I didn’t notice the time go by. Take a few great characters, a solid plot, and edit the story down to the essentials, and you’ll have a story that I won’t want to put down.
As much as I love most of the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire and its television counterpart, Game of Thrones, there are more than a few characters from the books that I wish Martin hadn’t included, if only because I spend those many chapters wanting to get back to main characters like Arya, Jon, or Cersei.
Variety is the Spice of Life- Have you ever read a series, then tried to tell a friend about it, only to say something like, “So in book three, Bob falls off a cliff- wait, no. That was book four. Or what it the fifth one?” That’s happened to me a few times, and I usually have a great memory for books and their events. But ask me in which book Harry Dresden talks about ‘Blampires’, or when Arya makes it to the House of Black and White, and I’ll just go, “umm…. the fourth one? Or maybe the fifth one? I don’t remember anymore.”
Sure, there’s room for series with a single storyline that spans five or more books, but the ones that have captured my imagination the best are the ones that vary plots, or even genres from one book to the next. If we go back to Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, for example, we’ll find that one book is an action/adventure set in space, while another is a mystery, and yet another is a comedy of manners that, with a couple of substitutions of science for magic, could easily become a fantasy. Just because a series’s main genre is ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’ doesn’t mean it can’t have sub-genres like mystery, romance, or even westerns represented.
Break it up, Break it up… – As I said above, there’s a time and a place for a single story that spans a few thousand pages, but there are more times that I would prefer to read a standalone or a trilogy set within a larger world, or have a series where I can pick up a single book, read a complete story no matter where I start, and then investigate the rest of the series at my leisure.
Take Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, for example, or Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels. You don’t have to have read ‘The Last Herald Mage’ trilogy for Arrows of the Queen to make sense, and if you’re content with reading only the standalone, Brightly Burning, out of the entire world of Valdemar books, that’s okay. You can get away with that, because Lackey told the centuries’ long history of the Kingdom of Valdemar the beginning and going on through each successive generation until she got to the end. She skipped around, filling in gaps where she saw fit, and leaving the rest to the imagination.
Anne McCaffery does the same with her Pern novels, of which I recently re-read three after having not read any of them for about twenty years. Thanks to a handy synopsis in The White Dragon, I didn’t feel like I had to read the entire Dragonriders trilogy to know what was happening in book three, nor did I need to go back to the founding of Pern in Dragonsdawn to figure out what the Thread and the Dragonriders were all about. The stories are contained within trilogies or standalones, and can be read by themselves or as a small part of the larger history of Pern.
Lois McMaster Bujold wrote her fantastic science fiction series, The Vorkosigan Saga, out of order for the most part, so that the publication order is very different from the overall story’s chronological order. But that’s okay, since Bujold meant for each of the stories to stand on their own so that you could take any one part and have a satisfying story with a real ending. There will be no cliffhangers on Barrayar!
So there are some of the factors that will hook me onto a series, and then never let me go. Character is the primary one. I’ll forgive iffy worldbuilding and plot holes as long as I love the characters, but if the characters are flat and static, I’ll put that book down so fast I won’t realize what just whacked me in the foot.
What are elements of science fiction or fantasy series that keep you coming back again and again?