When to Stop Writing… [With Some “Spoilers”]

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.

6 thoughts on “When to Stop Writing… [With Some “Spoilers”]”

  1. Lawrence says:

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with you. I’ll admit I’m one of those who gets to the end of your stories on Dorrin, Cerryl, Trystin Desoll or Jimjoy and says I want to read more. But like most readers who start to identify with a character I’m starting to take control in my mind of where I want it to go whether it’s realistic or not.

    Lets take the Ethos Effect. It wasn’t one of my favorite books, not due to lack of quality or depth but probably because I wasn’t prepared for a Trystin who had grown jaded to the point of completely giving up his idealism. The realism of the characters evoluation makes sense (and is one of the reasons I’ll buy darn near anything you write sight unseen) but it does leave one with a low level discomfort to see a literary hero seemingly worn out and ultimately defeated by himself. (My interpretation only I confess).

    I could definitely name some authors who simply wore out my interest, their stories just wouldn’t end. As with fine foods or far vacations, I think it’s good literary practice to leave off on a high note rather than indulging until you (either as the author or the reader) become sick of it.

    Thanks for humouring my pretensions to expertise,

  2. Jenn Barber says:

    I’m sure you’ve learned that catering to complainers doesn’t bring out the best in your work. (it doesn’t work for me as a teacher or as an artist) I truly enjoy your characters and understand that there’s a time to let one retire. I hate when books and movies do that ‘wringing the last bit of money out of a beloved character’ thing.
    I look forward to the next Imager book. Keep it coming, please.

  3. Sorwen says:

    Since you started the spoilers my comment has a little as well.

    For many it is more comfortable to believe that even if we can say they are men and women at their core they are still heros and heroes never die. It is like chicken noodle soup to think that even if we never hear of them the hero could show up just around the corner in the next book. Take Creslin and Megaera my favorite two heroes even though we only get one book of them to know even in an off handed way what happened to them even while expected takes a little of the comfort away. It takes a little bit of that hopeful ending the book had away each time I read it again.

    For me I’m fine with the end of the story if it is taken to a point where we can say that all that happens to the hero from then on is the every day. Also I think I’m more comfortable when a story ends on a high note, but a complete one. If questions are left beyond the every day then the story tugs at you to know more. That is great if there is more to the series, but a little disappointing if left simply for the potential of a new story. If there is more to be told then the question could be asked then instead.

    You could say it builds demand that readers may decide to ask more of the publisher because of this and that could be very true. Still if the people enjoyed the story and those characters they are going to ask any way. I guess you could say it is hedging your bets, but from the readers side I’ve never seen that to be the case. People are going to ask or not any way.

  4. Hockey Fan says:

    I think that you have done a good job stating your side of things and I definitely have sympathy for you getting requests to write more and more and more about one character. Despite said sympathy, I am one of those people who would like to see more books of certain characters, but I understand why sometimes that just can’t be. I mean really if you just keep doing what you think is best, and continue producing new worlds to read about and new characters to know, or continuations on characters we already know, us fans will be happy. Still have you considered creating another character and having their story take place in the lifetime of a character who you have already done, say a cyadorian during Lornth’s time? Goodluck, I am really liking the imager series and the science fiction novels of yours I have started to read.

  5. Tony says:

    I enjoy your books and found this blog post very interesting and informative. I definitely see what you are saying. But one thing I think would be really interesting is for one of these “young heroes” ( for instance, Rhen in the Imager Portfolio ) develop not only into young adulthood, but into middle and later adulthood. I am not really complaining. Whatever you decide to do is fine. Just saying I would like to see the development of the character through young adulthood to some later stage in life. For instance, I find it hard to believe that Rahl in “Natural Ordermage” and “Mage-Guard of Hamor” had no more adventures, or nothing else to learn, or no way to advance in Hamor. I just think it would be neat to see some of these characters develop into older adulthood. Once again, I understood fully your points and am not saying you need to this often ( if ever 🙂 ), just saying I think readers would like to see one of your young heroes character growth. Anyway, thanks for your books. I have quite enjoyed them.

  6. John L. Monk says:

    This was a particularly good one to read because I’m reading your Imager series again. I (of course) would love to see another Rhenn book, but I hate the idea of treating my favorite writers as story boxes that do whatever I want them to. I think if you were forced to write a 4th book with him — like something out of Misery — it’d be horrible, precisely because you’re done with him. But he is an intriguing character, lol: dinner on tuesday, dancing with highlords on wednesday, patrolling on thursday, and blowing up evil on friday. While I’m here (and thanks for all the links), I’ll say as a 50 year old lifelong reader, I’ve grown to like 1st person the best. I want that close connection to the MC. So that’s my vote…

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