The other day I ran across two comments on blogs about my books. One said that he wished I’d “finish” more books about characters, that he just got into the characters and then the books ended. The other said that I dragged out my series too long. While the comments weren’t about quite the same thing, they did get me to thinking. How much should I write about a given character? How long should a series be?
The simple and easy answer is that I should write as long as the story and the series remain interesting. The problem with that answer, however, is… interesting to whom?
Almost every protagonist I’ve created has resulted in a greater or larger number of readers asking for more stories about that particular character, and every week I get requests or inquiries asking if I’ll write another story about a particular character. That’s clearly because that reader identified with and/or greatly enjoyed that character… and that’s what every author likes to hear. Unfortunately, just because a character is so memorable to readers doesn’t mean that there’s another good story there… or that another story about that character will be as memorable to all readers.
Take Lerris, from The Magic of Recluce. By the end of the second book about him, he’s prematurely middle-aged as a result of his use of order and chaos to save Recluce from destruction by Hamor… and his actions have resulted in death and destruction all around him, not to mention that he’s effectively made the use of order/chaos magic impossible on a large or even moderate scale for generations to come. What is left for him in the way of great or striking deeds? Good and rewarding work as a skilled crafter, a happy family life? Absolutely… but there can’t be any more of the deeds, magic, and action of the first two books. That’s why there won’t be any more books about Lerris. If I wrote another book about Lorn…another popular character… for it to be a good book, it would have to be a tragedy, because the only force that could really thwart or even test him is Lorn himself. After a book in which a favorite character died, if of old age after forty years of magic working – and all the flak I took from readers who loved her – I’m understandably reluctant to go the tragic route again. So… for me, at least, I try to stop when the best story’s been told, and when creating an even greater peril or trial for the hero would be totally improbable for the world in which he or she lives.
For the same reason, because I’ve never written more than three books about a given main character, my “series” aren’t series in the sense of eight or ten books about the same characters, but groupings of novels in the same “world.” Even so, I hear from readers who want more in that world, and I read about readers who think I’ve done enough [or too much] in that world. Interestingly enough, very few of the complainers ever write me; they just complain to the rest of the world, and for me that’s just as well. No matter what they say publicly, I don’t know a writer who wants to get letters or emails or tweets telling them to stop doing what they like to do… and I’m no different.
But those who complain about series being too long usually aren’t dealing with the characters or the stories. From what I’ve seen and read, they’re the readers who’ve “exhausted” the magic and the gimmicks. They’re not there for characters and insights, but for the quicker “what’s new and nifty?” And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not necessarily a reason for an author to stop writing in that world; it’s a reason for readers who always want the “new” to move on. There’s still “new” in the Recluce Saga; it’s just not new magic. Sometimes, it’s stylistic. I’ve written books in the first person, the third person past tense, the third person present tense. I’ve connected two books with an embedded book of poetry. I’ve told the novels from both the side of order and the side of chaos, and from male and female points of view. Despite comments to the contrary, I’ve written Recluce books with teenaged characters, and those in their twenties, thirties, forties, and older. That’s a fair amount of difference, but only if the reader is reading for what happens to the characters… and virtually all the critics and reviewers have noted that each book expands the world of Recluce. I won’t write another Recluce book unless I can do that, and that’s why there’s often a gap of several years between books. The same is true of books set in my other worlds.
So… I guess, for me, the answer is that I stop writing about a character or a world when I can’t show something new and different, although it may be quiet new or character new.