Monday, July 13, 2009

Writing Series: Does Familiarity Breed Contempt or Comfort?

Jan van Eyck There are good things and bad things about long-term relationships.

On August 7, my husband and I will have been married 16 years.

There are very few surprises. For someone who likes predictability, this is a good thing. We have long-standing routines: he comes home from the office, we eat supper. The children tell him about their day. He and I watch “Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour” on PBS. He fusses about CEOs in large corporations and I fret about public education.

It’s predictable. It’s comforting. Is it…boring, though? And sometimes while we're in our predictable, comforting routine…we get on each others’ nerves.

With series, we’re inviting our readers to join us in a long-term relationship. Here are my thoughts (mostly as an avid series reader) on series do’s and don’ts:

Don’t make your protagonist's quirks too irritating.

If you use recurring characters, do have inside jokes from book to book. It’s fun to have a chatty character we know other characters will avoid. Or, when a character purchases a new appliance we know they won’t be able to figure out how to use it and will be cursing the thing in the next chapter. As a reader, it makes me feel very smug that I’m an insider.

Do show your character’s personal growth from book to book. If he doesn’t change at all, he’s just dead wood. If your character always falls in love with the wrong person, he might annoy your reader after a couple of books—“Hasn’t he learned anything?” Even if things happen to these characters, if they’re not developing as people, will the readers really care?

Do have an engaging setting that readers want to keep visiting. Louise Penny’s Three Pines, M.C. Beaton’s Scottish Lochdubh, Agatha Christe’s St. Mary Mead provide wonderful escapes for their readers.

Do introduce new characters. But not too many. I enjoy recurring characters, but if there’s no one new, I get tired of the old gang after a few books. On the other hand, if there are too many new characters, I lose track of who they all are.

Don’t assume your readers remember details from book to book. Sometimes I’m reading a series as it’s published so there might be a break of 9-12 months between reading them. A small tag for characters (Ben was the preacher’s son, etc.) is really appreciated.

Don’t assume your readers remember nothing from book to book. If the author goes over lots of backstory that I’m already well-acquainted with, that’s tiresome, too. I think it’s a delicate balance.

I try to keep my series pet peeves and preferences in my head as I write. Because I don’t want readers' familiarity with my books to breed contempt.