Friday, May 30, 2014

Series' Shifting Spotlight

As characters wax and wane

I’ve just had my first review of Threat Multiplication (Slowpocalypse, Book 2) and it’s raised this issue.  Brent liked it, but not as much as the first book – he found it difficult to keep track of all the characters (a number of new characters were introduced) and was frustrated by a number of minor characters from the first book becoming more important in this one.

Could I have done a better job of establishing who these characters are?  Probably.  (And thanks for the feedback.  I’ve added descriptions of the returning characters from the first book to the front of Threat Multiplication, and I hope that will help.)

But part of the problem seems to be one of expectations, because Brent says he enjoyed Kat’s story more than David’s.  Certain Hypothetical was basically a two-hander – David’s story on the one hand and Kat’s on the other.  And this reader, at least, approached Book 2 as if it were the same.  But it’s not.

While Kat maintains her prominent role from Book 1, David becomes more of a supporting character – and ‘his story’ is really the shared storyline of several characters.  And I don’t see how I could have done anything more to make it clear that this part of the book is a ‘team effort’ rather than David’s story.  (And that team is led by Anthony, who has a part to play in each storyline.  If any other character is sharing the spotlight with Kat, it’s him, not David.)

This was a conscious choice on my part.  The first book was a kind of ‘soft’ introduction to the series – kicking things off with a smaller story that focused on two characters who didn’t have a clue what was happening at first.  But I always intended to develop the larger cast of characters in successive books, to expand the world and open up opportunities for more stories.

And this second book has a more complicated story to tell, one that David could only tell a small part of anyway.  So Threat Multiplication is an ensemble piece, with Kat taking the larger role and a company of other characters filling out the rest of the play.

Of course there’s a danger that readers will be disappointed that a favorite character doesn’t appear as much as they’d like (or at all) – or that someone new (or newly promoted) hogs some of the spotlight.
Which leads me to two great things about writing a series.  One is being able to tell more stories with favorite characters – like visiting good friends.  The other is being able to introduce new characters or develop minor characters further – making the books fuller and richer.

The problem is that those two things are in conflict with each other.  To the extent you keep focusing on the main characters you started with, you limit the room available for others.  On the other hand, the more you develop additional characters, the less time you have to spend with the original cast.

It’s a conundrum every series writer faces, and there’s no right answer to dealing with it, but there are different approaches.  There’s nothing wrong with staying with a couple of main characters – that certainly worked for the Nero Wolfe mysteries, but then Archie and Wolfe are great characters you’d never get tired of.

Other series quickly expand from a core set of characters, so that any one book doesn’t have room for them all (like the Wheel of Time, or the Meg Langslow mysteries.)  Some series are so focused on their fictional world recurring characters may be rare.
Am I expanding the cast of the Slowpocalypse books too fast?  I can’t know for sure, but I believe I’ve got the right characters for the stories I’m telling.  My hope is that the new characters will be as compelling as the veterans – and that the older characters will grow more interesting as their stories continue.

My approach with Watchbearers is different still.

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