Evolution

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So as I prep for release of Paint it Black, my first novel-length release in almost two years, there have been a ton of things running through my head. 

Things like “oh crap, I’ve gotta get this play blocked!” “Oh crap, I’m late for work! Again!” and “Oh crap, I owe Alan a story for his steampunk superheroes anthology (coming this weekend, I promise!)” 

Along the way there have been plenty of “Oh crap!” moments about the actual book I’m releasing as well, but somewhere along the way I had an epiphany that I wanted to talk about here. The books are changing as the series progresses. And I’m not sure that all of my fans will like that. 

Let’s back up to some of my reading history, and all will (hopefully) make sense as we move forward. And someday I promise to do a blog post devoid of parentheticals. Today ain’t that day. 

When I started reading The Dresden Files, I was instantly captivated. Here was a fresh voice – a snarky, witty, didn’t take himself too seriously, even kinda goofy narrator whose smart mouth frequently wrote checks that his ass couldn’t cash. Over the course of the series, to keep raising the stakes and keep the character in a constant state of turmoil and peril (like we do), Butcher had to make the situations darker and more lethal, and he had to make Harry more and more powerful just to survive. By the last couple of books before Ghost Story, Harry Dresden had grown into such a badass and so dark that many hints of the character I loved were gone. Butcher had to go so far as to kill the protagonist and bring him back to get him some sense of perspective and lighten the character a little. 

No, I did not put a friggin’ spoiler alert in there. Cold Days came out in November of 2012, so almost 11 months ago. If you haven’t read the book by now, you’ll have forgotten anything I have to say about it. 

So as I went through Paint it Black, I realized that there was a little power creep in my guys, too. And that the story had gotten darker. And it was all in service to the story, and the advancement of the plot, but I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen if I decided to keep the series going for a long time. 

Because that’s kinda how it works. You have to keep the stakes high, either in the level of physical danger, or in the emotional cost to the characters. In Hard Day’s Knight, I messed up. I didn’t know I was starting a series, so I saved the world. Then, when I decided I liked the characters enough to go back for another book, I had to make it a very small book in scope, essentially a family drama with a supernatural framework. But when I revisited Back In Black for rewrites, I started laying the groundwork for the entire six-book arc and saw that to continue to keep abusing my readers in the fashion that they have become accustomed to, I was going to have to do some fairly nasty things to my characters. And I don’t really know how much of that the characters can take without fundamentally altering their makeup over time. 

So how do I deal with this? Can I just hit the reset button like Butcher did? Not really, because it’s now been done. Can I find new an entertaining ways to torture a main character like Kim Harrison does? Maybe, but I’m not really that bright. 

So I decided to end the series. 

Not anytime soon, don’t worry. But I decided that to maintain some semblance of the characters that I love, the series eventually has to end. Because otherwise my goofy, snarky urban fantasy heroes will turn into just more dark, brooding anti-heroes like everybody else. And who wants that? 

So what do y’all think? Can you have characters that go through spectacular trials, end up changed in every book, and still maintain the same qualities that made you love them in the first place? Can a series run indefinitely, or do all good things need to come to an end? 

And I promise, just because I’ve figure out where The Black Knight Chronicles will end, it’s not happening anytime soon. 

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10 comments to Evolution

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Cool. This is a very interesting post and it brings up some very interesting questions. When I first sat down and decided to try out writing a book, I didn’t realize that the story I had in mind was really something like three books (darned high-fantasy reading background!). Obviously three books does not at all compare to six or twenty in a series (and I am in awe of authors who can keep doing intelligent character arcs for six books). However, I am still worried that the last book could end up *very* dark, and also on a very different armies-marching sort of *scale* than what I want and am interested. My solution for the moment is to flat out nix marching armies and *force* myself to come up with alternate options (interesting side note: this actually forces me to thoroughly explore my magic system – good). The other plan is to work *now* on shoring up my characters so that they’ll be able to take some hard hits without crumbling. Crumbling can be interesting, but it’s just not what I want to end up spending a book on. We’ll see how the plan works out.

    And, I would ask you about good methods for sprinkling humor throughout a fundamentally dark storyline, but humor is *not* my strong suit. Again, reference ‘awe’.

  • I’m not certain yet how Deadboy will end up. He started out pretty dark, so I’m going to have to go on a journey with him toward something a little less heavy handed. I don’t know how many books he’ll go through. I’ll have to balance the darkness with the evolution. In book one, he’s understanding that, while he is a monster, he still has the human within. In the next, I’ll have to couple that with the fact that he’s maybe more human than he thinks, but the monster can sometimes be a useful commodity, and maybe I’d lighten the story just a little. In the third, maybe the dark comes back. Maybe someone he loves gets taken away. Maybe he has to battle the darkness within—overcome or succumb. Maybe he comes out okay or maybe he comes out scarred.

    It’s definitely a balancing act and something I’ve been thinking about for a while with this character. I mean, when you need to heal yourself and keep your very sanity by eating the flesh of the living, what other parts of your sanity are you eroding?

    I don’t know how it’s going to end, but I think it’ll be a cool ride, either way.

  • Ken

    Using your Dresden Files example, I don’t think that the core things that make Harry who he is have changed. They are bearing the physical, mental, and emotional burden of everything that’s happened to him , but they’re there. I don’t think that you can run a series indefinitely to begin with (Harry’s story line will run 23 books or so), but I do think that there are certain core elements to a character that you can keep intact while you’re putting those characters through the ringer.

    I think that you’ve also got a bit of leeway in the type of story you’re telling. The Dresden Files are (amongst other things) related to the “Hardboiled Detective” stories that characters like Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade lived in. When you’re reading (or watching) one of those, you’ll see that Phillip or Sam at the beginning is, by and large, the same Phillip or Sam at the end. Does change come to these guys? Yes, but very slowly, so if you’re writing that kind of story, your readers will “Forgive” a little of that…not much, but if you’re in it for the long haul, every little bit of slack helps.

    Oh and,technically, Harry never died 🙂

  • kwlee

    I think certainly it is possible to have a long running series where characters evolve, however not so much that they become unrecognizable. Much of the comic book industry runs on this premise. Of course in this format the stories tend to be episodic and memories rarely last beyond the most recent story arc, but it is still a popular medium.

    I personally, however, believe that all good things must come to an end. Not because I think that eventually quality suffers, or story-lines begin to repeat themselves, or that ‘mission creep’ begins to set in and change the series’ fundamentals, but rather because I like endings. There’s nothing like setting down a final book and marvelling over the wonderful journey that the series has taken me, and how a part of me would wish that it would go on, but here is the end and it was immensely satisfying. For me the payoff has always been the ending, and I just don’t get that sense for the stories that just keep on going.

    So I say… don’t cheat your readers from a really good ending, and I applaud the courage to say here’s where I hang it up.:)

  • Vyton

    This is a great, interesting topic. The comments have been really instructive. I agree with Ken. Your readers will take quite a bit of abuse as long as it *feels* right. Your MC doesn’t suddenly regenerate a right arm, etc. Although I can’t think of a specific example, some series authors run the MC out on a long limb, but in the next book, it’s like he was never even up the tree. I am also in awe of the ability to maintain a six-book arc. Fantastic.

  • Marlie Harris

    This topic seems to come at a time when I’ve realized that it will be a three book series. I’ve been struggling with how to get it all in one book. It’s just not going to work. I came to the realization today that I didn’t have to keep it to one book. John, and everyone here, you have given me the “permission” to make it that way. Madi must find her family and they are spread over the country. In order to make it work, I will need to break each family member into a separate search. Meanwhile, her nemesis is hunting her with better resources. Now I’m even more excited to see how this arc turns out. Thank you.

  • Oy. (Covers head with sheets.) Maybe I’ll sleep in tonight. Yes, I see it all the time. LKH did it with sex. (Yeah I know how that sounds. Giggle and read on.) Lee Child did it by making his character a total loaner, so alone he is nearly psychotic. Every writer does something horrible/weird/dreadful to their characters in order to keep the well-paying series going. So I stare at book 8 of Jane Yellowrock. And wonder if I did enough bad things to her to keep her going.
    Sigh…

  • quillet

    Hmm, this is making me think of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, of which I’ve admittedly not yet read the last three (so I’ve *only* read a dozen or so!). She somehow manages to put Miles through different kinds of hell every time, sometimes big war-type sagas, sometimes smaller emotional or familial problems, sometimes suspense and mystery, and sometimes a surprising mix. Just when Miles thinks he knows how to handle a certain kind of situation, life will throw something totally different in his face, something that requires tools he simply doesn’t have, or new tactics he has to make up as he goes. Where big guns worked last time, this time he might need subtlety and patience, say. (Miles? And patience? Are not friends.) Although he grows and changes throughout the series, he also stays very much crazy-indomitable-genius-Miles, and the series definitely keeps its humour. Maybe the secret is not to keep *upping* the stakes, but to *change* the stakes each time? I dunno.

  • I’m reaching this point with Ethan, and wondering how I’m going to deal with it. Books 1 and 2 were fairly dark, and bad things happened to him (and he did some bad stuff). Book 3 is really dark, and book 4 will be darker still. By the end of that volume, something will have to give. Ethan might have to leave Boston, or it might just be time for me to end the series, or I’ll have to find some other way to shake things up. But yes, you raise an excellent and fascinating question — I don’t have any answers yet.

  • Tom G

    Wait, tell more about the steampunk superheroes. When is it coming out?