Once upon a time, most novels were stand alone stories. Authors would move from one setting to another, maybe even a different century, and create new characters each time out the gate. Remember all those lovely Mary Stewart romantic suspense novels? Even the ones set in the Greek Isles didn’t connect. (The Merlin books were a series, but not contempoary romantic suspense.)
These days, in case you haven’t noticed, series have taken over the world of popular fiction. Mystery is a genre with a long history of series, though even so, some of those Golden Age mystery writers varied among a stable of regulars. Agatha Christie comes to mind with Hercule Poirot (he of the tiresome little gray cells and egg shaped head—factoids I remember decades after reading any of the books), Miss Marple, and the couple Tommy and Tuppence. She did stand alones, too.
For mysteries, where often the puzzle was paramount, bringing in an established sleuth saved times. No need to develop the character since the character was already developed as much as he was going to be. (See “egg shaped head,” above. Even Christie came to see Poirot as “an ego-centric creep:” <g> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agatha_Christie )
So when did it all change? And why?
The romance genre may have something to do with the change. More than any other genre, romance is focused on characters and relationships. This is true across all romantic subgenres.
But maybe even more true in Regency romance. The Regency genre we know and love is something of a shared world fantasy, to a large extent invented by Georgette Heyer. The setting is generally England in a narrow span of years. (The Prince Regent was in charge from 1811 until his father’s death in 1820, though the fictive Regency world is longer.)
Many stories were set all or in part in London, and certain historical characters like Prinny and Beau Brummell and the patronesses of Almack’s turned up in many stories. Heck, when I wrote my first book, The Diabolical Baron, I pretty much thought Almack’s was compulsory. <g> So the Regency was a fertile ground for writing connected stories.
When I looked at the first books of those Wenches who started in traditional Regency, we all connected characters from our first books. Jo and I in particular rolled into long and increasingly complex series. Jo’s Rogues series started in the mid-80s, and has only recently been concluded. And it turns out the Rogues have friends. <G>
I am regularly complimented on my Rogues series. On Jo’s behalf, I always accept the plaudits graciously. <G> (Unlike Jo, I do not use genealogical software to keep track of my characters’ families and relationships. Perhaps I should.)
A lot of readers really enjoyed connected books. Women like reading for community. It’s great fun to revisit characters we love and see how they’re doing. Ditto to see secondary characters move to center stage and develop their own strengths and idiosyncrasies as protagonists. It’s all good—but why did series become practically compulsory???
In a word: Branding. This has become a hot concept in publishing, as well as just about everywhere else in the entertainment and commercial worlds. Once upon a time, Tide detergent was Tide detergent. A detergent with bleach would be launched with a new name, new colors, new advertising, etc. But a lot of new product launches failed and the products were discontinued, at significant costs to the producer.
I’m just guessing here, but I think some bright marketing laddie one day said, “Tide is an established brand with a lot of satisfied customers. Instead of calling our new product Zowie Detergent with Bleach, let’s call it Tide with Bleach and take advantage of an established brand name!”
“And so branding was born. Note that this is an invented example: I have no idea of exactly how branding started. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Proctor and Gamble were leaders in this area. (Okay, I just went to Wikipedia. P&G was founded in 1837 by a candle maker and a soap maker, and they are indeed pioneers of brand management.)
In an increasing complex marketplace FULL of shrieking commercial voices, branding became a way to survive and flourish. Pop culture began doing the same thing. Star Wars parts IV, V, and VI, later followed by Star Wars I, II, III. People would talk about the new Die Hard or Indiana Jones movie. Franchises/branding moved in and became the 600 lb. gorilla. People liked returning to characters and settings they enjoyed before.
The same is true of books, so now publishing is knee deep in series, too. Publishing is a hard business, and anything that will give a book an edge is valuable.
As is true of just about everything, there are pluses and minuses. Revisiting a world we love is an obvious plus.
But the minuses are also there. In romance, the custom is to have each hook focus on the courtship of a single couple. Their story is developed and resolved in that volume, so there’s a satisfying ending. A variation on this is the trilogy where there is an overarching plot issue in the background that isn’t resolved until the end of the final book, but each of the books focuses on a different couple.
Though my books are almost always connected, the individual stories are designed to stand on their own. My longest series, The Fallen Angels, is what I fondly call my seven book trilogy. I quit because it seemed as if it would get too unwieldy. This is a danger of very long series—so many characters that it’s impossible to revisit them all without old home week taking over the story. And a reader who hasn’t read the earlier books is apt to be irritated by all the chumminess, like going to a party where everyone else knows each other but you’re a stranger. My rule of thumb is never to pull in an earlier character unless he or she fills a legitimate story function. The reader doesn’t have to have read that character’s own romance.
Indefinite series, if they’re successful, can go on and on and ON, leaving the reader with the question of where to start. Early books might be out of print and hard to obtain. And sometimes, when I’ve decided to start a series at the beginning, I’ve found the writing wasn’t strong enough to hold my attention though it might be later.
With mystery series, which now have much stronger characterization than in the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, there’s the challenge of having your characters grow without growing so much that readers aren’t interested any more. Sue Grafton has done a good job with her Kinsey Milhone, as has Carola Dunn with her Daisy Dalrymple series, set in post-WWI England.
My pet peeve is when a sleuth’s love interest is killed off after the reader has bonded with the character. As a writer, I can understand the desire to stir things up, have the protagonist experience grief and growth, and allow the introduction of new potential love interests. But as a reader, I HATE it. Heck, I stopped reading one writer when he murdered a cat very nastily just to prove how awful the bad guys were. This is the origin of the mystery axiom “Don’t kill the cat!” (The heroine had a dog, but nooooo, it was the sweet cat that was massacred. I don’t think that author is published anymore, and serves him right.)
But I digress. <G>
Some of the dark fantasy series that are selling very well have such complicated world building that if you don’t start at the beginning, you’ll never be able to figure out what’s going on. Even if you’ve read the earlier books, if any amount of time goes by between books, you might need to reread to remember what’s what.
And the really big danger with a series: having a series you love get canceled with no real resolution. If the author doesn’t know the ax is about to fall, she can’t wind things up. I’m told of one fantasy series that literally ended with hero and heroine on a cliff, in danger. What a terrible thing to have happen to series, author, and readers!
When Robert Jordan, author of the immensely popular Wheel of Time fantasy series, died before completing the twelfth and final volume, there was much agitas among his readers. I’d heard that he once said that if he died before finishing, too bad, but he changed his mind after being diagnosed with a terminal blood disease. The final story was partially completed and fully outlined, and is being completed by another writer. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jordan ) I admire his commitment to his readers.
I’ll be interested to know your opinions!
Mary Jo, who is in a hurry and probably knee deep in typos