A Time to Say Goodbye

A Time to Say Goodbye

After the post I wrote recently about my favorite books, I started thinking about a post for long-running book series. A series is a different beast from an individual book, after all. They require long-term plans from the beginning. Sometimes a long string of loosely related stories in the same world works (Xanthe and Discworld are both like this) but most series are defined by the continuing adventures of a set of characters within a certain world. The more I think about the series I’ve read, however, the more I realize they all suffer the same severe flaws.

I’m a huge fan of Jesse Cox over on YouTube (he’s a voice actor who does a series of crazy let’s plays and video game commentary). During an episode of The Game Station Podcast, he put forth a theory that everything, if allowed to go on long enough, will eventually turn to shit (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly). He compares this to game series which have been milked to death by their creators, to the point where people gag at the idea of a new one coming out (Guitar hero, say, or Final Fantasy). First of all, I applaud Jesse for saying what we’re all thinking. Secondly, I think his theory can be applied to more than just video games. Movies are a top offender (as I think he mentioned), but books are right up there too.

Every reader gets attached to their favorite characters in their favorite books. Closing the book at the end, or worse the last book at the end of a series, and realizing that’s it, it’s over, you’re never going to learn anything new about your favorite character is devastating. That sense of loss is part of the appeal of reading in the first place. The overwhelming desire to know more is what often leads to fan-fiction (the topic of a whole other post!) and it lets the author know they’ve done their job well; they’ve connected you to these characters. You care about what happens to them. Every writer gets equally (if not more so, let’s face it, these people live in our heads) attached to their favorite characters. We want to write more about them because we love the feel of climbing into their head-space and scrawling their voice across the page.

But every story has to end. It has to. Writing every detail of a character’s life just isn’t feasible. Eventually something boring has to happen. The character wakes up, eats, walks, maybe goes to work, folds their laundry and then sleeps. Rinse, repeat. No one wants to read about that. And even if you can keep generating ideas for exciting things to happen to a character, eventually people are going to wonder ‘wait a minute… they have to sleep at some point, right?’ Several years ago when Twenty-Four was a hot hit and rolling into its fourth season, a friend asked me if Jack Bower shouldn’t have to sleep by now since he was in his fourth straight day of staying up all night to save the world. It’s apt to apply that even to fantasy worlds. Every interesting, exciting thing to ever happen in this world just so happens to happen to this one person? Suspension of belief only takes you so far.

Just because a writer has an idea for a story, doesn’t mean that story should ever be. If you write any character for too long, you run them into the ground. You come to a point where you realize you’ve told every story there is to tell about this particular character’s life. At that point, you have the choice of finding a new story to tell, just so you can keep writing, or letting the character go. The latter is hard. It’s sad. You don’t want to leave behind a world or a character you’ve invested so much time in, but sometimes it’s the respectful thing to do. Respect the heart of the story. Respect the character you’ve written. Let their story come to its natural end.

It’s true, I have a few characters I hold on to. I change their setting and life circumstances every now and then, reboot them in alternate universes and see how they fare. But I do this for fun, in ‘doodles’ that will never see the light of day beyond me reading over them for my own enjoyment. It helps me stretch my writing muscles and lets me keep hold of the characters I find most dear. But someday, when I sit down to put their real stories in ink, it will be my sad duty to walk away when the story is told. To do any less is selfish and it would only hurt my work.

I’ve seen too many series I love turn sour. It’s sad, but I can’t think of a single one which I didn’t eventually turn me away. Sometimes the writing becomes formulaic. This is particularly true of series like The Dragonriders of Pern or The Novels of Valdemar. In fact they make such good fan-fiction because they contain a specific series of events which tend to happen over and over in sequence; character is in a bad situation, character impresses a dragon/is chosen by a companion, character is trained to be a dragonrider/herald, character’s situation improves in a short story or they go on to save the world in a novel. It becomes predictable and predictability is bad when it comes to novels. Readers get bored. Jumping through history might help, but when people in every age stop believing in Threadfall, again the story becomes repetitive.

Another problem with long-running series is keeping track of the details from earlier novels so that they can be incorporated into later stories. This seems a particular problem if the author jumps back and forth through the timeline rather than writing in chronological order. It becomes painfully obvious to readers reading the series in chronological order that the author forgot their original establishment of events. I face this issue with the Valdemar books more often of late. It makes me sad, since I like the story and characters but get frustrated when the details of different books contradict each other.

Then there’s the problem of dragging a series past its natural end, either to satisfy readers or to continue making money off the series. Dan Simmons, author of the Hyperion and Endymion series has stated he will no longer write novels within that particular universe because he doesn’t want to turn his writing into cash generation and thus cheapen the work he did in these worlds, a statement which I respect. I believe this to be the downfall of the Incarnations of Immortality series, which I loved. The series originally ended at five books, and I still think the ending to the fifth book was the best. Piers Anthony later added two other books (For Love of Evil and And Eternity) for the extra incarnations of “Good” and “Evil” which had been referred to as “eternals” in the early books. While this involved some retconing (the biggest problem with dragging out a series forever; oh yeah I always had that brother, you just never knew about him! *groan*), it was pulled off artfully enough that I didn’t mind. Ten years later, however, he went on to write Under a Velvet Cloak which, in my opinion, only damages the series. It marginalizes everything which happened in the series before it by retconing manipulation of a relatively minor character all to satisfy a desire which makes no logical sense in the context of the series.

Finally, when an author has a gem of a series and they’ve come to the end of their ability to write it, they will sometimes hand it over to a family member to continue in their absence. While I have no particular problem with this, sometimes a writer looses their ability to tell the story before they feel it’s come to its proper end, the new author can rarely do the characters and their world proper justice. This happened with the Dune series and also with the Pern series. In the case of Dune, I can’t comment, having never read the newer books, but in the case of Pern I was sorely disappointed with Todd McCaffrey’s efforts. For one thing, there’s no peril, since the stories all take place in an earlier time period which the main characters of the original series prove harmless merely by the fact of their existence. Unfortunately, the plots also didn’t live up to the expectations set by the originals; one can only endure so many plagues and ignore the consequences of time travel for so long before they wish to throw books across the room.

Despite my criticisms, I still love many of the core books that make up all the aforementioned series, but it saddens me when something I love takes a turn for the worse. It makes me wonder, when is the best time to walk away? Probably when the reader will have that bittersweet sort of feeling at putting the last book down. Quit while you’re ahead, as they say. I only hope when it’s my turn to walk away from my darlings, I have the strength and integrity to let the story end.

3 Replies to “A Time to Say Goodbye”

  1. Love this post. So true, all of it.

    Might I ask your opinion of Eddings’ series (you know the ones – my favorites)? I know you enjoyed them once, but I’m curious to know how you feel about them now.

    I feel that he did them good justice, and only enhanced the two series with his books from Pol and Belgarath’s perspectives.

    Anyway, yes. There is a time to put it down. Sadly. I know the three-day crying session that comes at the end of a really good series. But those characters and novels will always live on as some of the best I’ve ever read in my heart – because they weren’t destroyed by the stretching and thinning that you describe.

    1. You always ask the tough questions :) It’s one of the reasons I <3 you!

      David Eddings's stories are different. He wasn't telling ten short stories, he was telling two long ones. Since it only takes a glance at the end of the books to see that the stories don't end or even wind down in between, you know what you're getting in to when you embark on the journey of reading these books. I don't feel like either series is drawn out. I don't feel like either one should have ended sooner.

      I do feel like the second series had some issues, mostly plot related. Bits of it feel arbitrary to me (you can take these people but not those people, these people have to all get together at a designated time and place, then someone just chooses the end outcome. Why? No explanation. It's just arbitrary). There's a lot of deus ex machina involved in the outcome of the second series, in my opinion. That doesn't quite do it for me in terms of a resolution.

      But I also feel like that was the story he set out to tell and that he did justice to the story that he intended to tell, it just wasn't my favorite story. It doesn't suffer from any of the things I mentioned in this post; it isn't formulaic, it doesn't retroactively change facts established in the first series (because the whole prophecy thing was well established in the first series). For me, it was the characters that got me through the second half of the second series. Zakath, for example. I heart him like wow. And he's really only in the second half of the second series ^^;; yet I feel it's worth reading just for him and some of the other character moments that pop up there.

      I also agree that the Belgarath and Polgara books enhanced the series. They dealt with things that didn't really come up elsewhere in the series, yet the wove an interesting backdrop for the the events which took place later. They're basically an in depth history for the world he built. If I'm 100% honest, I liked those two books even better than the second series.

      1. Awesome. I wondered. I can see where you’re coming from with the second series, too. Just a bit forced, but not to the detriment of the series as a whole, I think. (I also loved Zakath.) And yeah, I feel almost a greater attachment to the two followups than the series itself. Almost. :)

        But, you know how I love the series, so there’s that. :P

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