Characters as friends: the allure of series
You never know what will happen when you hang out with your friends…but you have a pretty good idea about the range of possibilities. ;)
That same combination of familiarity and surprise applies to literary series.
By series, I mean books which feature the same characters and/or setting, but aren’t one continuous story.
Look at Xanth or Oz or Stephanie Plum or Little House (on the Prairie) as examples.
Sure, there may be an evolution of the situation. That’s certainly true in Oz, where characters’ past experiences shape their future actions (even though the characters don’t age), or in Little House, where natural human aging has an effect.
Generally, though, each book in a series contains a story…it has a beginning, middle, and end.
There is a reason people refer to the “Lord of the Rings trilogy”, rather than simply referring to it as the “Middle-Earth series”. The three books really tell one tale.
While some people look down on series as being less creative than coming up with something unprecedented each time, I think some authors are really freed by the format.
Great series manage the trick of being accessible to newcomers, but not needing to do all the background exposition every single time, as you would do in stand-alone novels.
We don’t need a description of Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm in Kansas every time we read an Oz book, and we don’t need to get all the details about how Dorothy became friends with the Scarecrow.
Certainly, it enriches the book for the reader if you do know that back story, but you can always go, well, back and read more about it, if you want.
I liken a book series to a TV series, with separate episodes, but shared history.
That said, I always want to read series in order, from the first to the last.
I love to be surprised when I’m being entertained, so I don’t want to read about something in passing in a later book that is a big reveal in an earlier one…I don’t even want to know who has survived each book.
I’ll admit, though, that that is probably partially my somewhat obsessive nature. I kid my family and say I’m obsessive but not compulsive: it doesn’t rise to the level of a compulsion for me, but I’m aware of order (and yes, I count steps when I walk on them).
For example, in a very unusual situation for me, I woke up this morning sure it was Monday (it was Sunday).
I tore the page off my page-a-day calendar (a gift…I do recycle the pages and the holder) for Monday before I realized.
It’s been bothering me all day that I’ve seen it a day ahead of time. :)
Not bothering me so much that I can’t do other things, and I didn’t go back and replace the page or make a conscious effort to forget what it says.
Awareness of it, though? Yes, absolutely.
So my desire to read series books in order may not apply to you. After all, I’ve suggested that’s sort of the point of a series: you can read them out of order.
I refer to the characters as “friends” at the top of this post, and for many characters, it does feel like that to me.
It might not always be the healthiest of relationships, and the friendship isn’t reciprocal…but that’s how it is sometimes in real life, too, right? ;)
Monk and Ham; Dorothy, Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, and all the rest; Stephanie, Lula, Ranger, and Morelli; Sherlock and Dr. Watson; Professor Challenger; Elric; Rachel Morgan; Miss Marple*…they all bring me that comfortable and yet exciting feeling. I know them: I know who they are, but I don’t know what they’ll do.
They can reassure me and challenge me…and hopefully, yes, surprise me.
That’s why it can be so disappointing when a series gets to be too predictable…or when characters act “out of character”.
We want our friends (living and literary) to help us grow: to show us new things by building on the past.
There used to be an old joke that Playboy had brought out a new magazine for married men: it had the same centerfold every month. ;) However, if it was the same person, but different activities, well, that might actually work…you know, if the person was actually treated as a three-dimensional human being, anyway.
Our literary “friends” often have depth and complexity…but is that really necessary for us? Hm, interesting question…there are certainly some characters who are pretty much always the same, and that still works.
I should also be clear: I’m not saying I’d like to know all of these folks in real life! Elric and I would probably not get along at all well…
One other interesting phenomenon with this: I do feel a certain loyalty to characters. I feel like I owe them something, for what they have given me.
If a new Doc Savage movie comes out (and one is expected, in the next few years, currently in development by Shane Black), I will feel like I should go see it…even if the reviews turn out to be awful.
I owe Doc that much. :)
Amazon has a listing of series here:
although they aren’t using the term the way I am, and there are some odd listings there.
What about you? Do you like open ended series, or do you prefer having something that completes itself? What series have you loved? What series took a turn in such a way that you stopped reading them? Do you feel the same sort of loyalty that I have? Would you like to meet any characters from series…or live in (or visit) their worlds? Feel free to tell me and my readers by commenting on this post.
* I thought you might want a bit more information on the characters here (and I could have chosen many more):
- Monk and Ham: two of Doc Savage’s associates, in the books by “Kenneth Robeson” (that’s a house name…the main author was Lester Dent). Monk is a chemist who looks enough like an ape that people make that mistake in identity. Ham is a dandified lawyer. They fight constantly, but in reality, would die for each other
- Dorothy, Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, and all the rest: the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy is from Kansas. Ozma is the ruler of the land in later books (I’m not going to consider that a spoiler…I won’t tell you how or when it happens). Jack literally has a pumpkinhead, and is a bit of a cosmic fool
- Stephanie, Lula, Ranger, and Morelli: the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. Stephanie Plum is the main character, a bounty hunter. Lula is…a friend with an outside personality. Ranger is a charismatic monosyllabic security expert, and Morellis is a cop
- Sherlock and Dr. Watson: from the Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle. I assume I need not explain anything here ;)
- Professor Challenger: again by Doyle. Best known for The Lost World, but appears in two other novels and other works. Bombastic, intelligent, abrasive
- Elric (of Melniboné) by Michael Moorcock. Truly a tragic figure, Elric is a physically weak person (and an albino) who has a sword that gives him strength and fighting prowess, but that has a will of its own (and may certainly kill Elric’s loved ones if unsheathed). Anyone who has played Dungeons and Dragons will recognize the influence of Stormbringer. There are a lot of metaphors here…
- Rachel Morgan of The Hollows by Kim Harrison. Set aside the supernatural elements, and these are better Stephanie Plum books than some of the actual Stephanie Plum books. ;) You can’t set aside the supernatural, though…that’s definitely part of the appeal. Rachel is a bounty hunter and a detective, but differs markedly from Stephanie Plum in dealing with vampires, witches, and the like who are now living openly with humans
- Miss Marple by Agatha Christie. Like many fictional detectives, Jane Marple is generally underestimated and dismissed by those in authority, but has a keen intellect. Would you like Miss Marple to be helping you? Definitely! Would it be fun to watch, even if you weren’t involved in the case? Indubitably
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