The idea of serial stories is as old as Scheherazade, and readers and listeners have always loved them. We like revisiting characters we enjoy, catching up with their lives like we do with old friends we see infrequently.
Series writers tread some dangerous waters. We might offend our readers if a character does something they don’t like. In television they call it “jumping the shark” when a series goes too far (It relates to Fonzie on HAPPY DAYS, who actually did that in an episode late in the series.) Letting major characters marry is often a mistake, since it removes the sexual tension (e.g. MOONLIGHTING). As a reader I’ve been disappointed when authors take their characters into so much personal trauma that I feel like I’ve left the mystery genre for melodrama.
I understand the problem, though. How does an author write book after book with the same characters and keep readers’ interest? There has to be growth and change, doesn’t there?
As a writer, my solution thus far has been to limit my series. When an idea occurs to me, I make a mental estimate: How far can this/these characters arc from Situation A to Situation X, a logical stopping place for the “big” story? For my historical series, I saw Simon working with Elizabeth Tudor at several important points in her life. It laid out as a five-book series in my mind, so the readers sees Elizabeth as Henry’s daughter in HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, Edward’s loving sister in POISON, YOUR GRACE, Mary’s distrusted co-heir in THE LADY FLIRTS WITH DEATH, a queen dealing with threats to her throne in the upcoming HER MAJESTY’S MISCHIEF, and finally, as an old woman, successful but quite different from the innocent young girl we first met (HER ROYAL HIGHNESS PLOTS, still an idea in my head.)
In my Dead Detective series, four books seemed reasonable. We introduced the idea in THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, continued to a second case in DEAD FOR THE MONEY, found Seamus a partner in DEAD FOR THE SHOW, and he’ll solve his own case in the final book, also still a little sketchy at this point.
The Loser Series took three books. Meeting the damaged Loser in KILLING SILENCE, we saw her heal a little in KILLING MEMORIES. In the last book we will see how she ends up, and I think readers will approve (KILLING DESPAIR releases in 2014).
Any one of these series could go on, but as a writer, I don’t think I want them to. If I grow bored with my characters, it will show. If they simply repeat what they’ve done before, it will bore me and my readers. And if I let them get too crazy, they’ll kill the affection we have for them.
So is a series a good or a bad idea? I think it’s good IF the author considers the readers “arc of discovery” and her own “arc of interest.” Could I write ten books in a series? I suppose so, but I have so many other ideas! Will readers wish there were more than three or four or five? Maybe, but isn’t there something about it being better to leave the audience wanting more?