Series vs. Recurring Characters

In the comments thread for Will the Series be Unbroken, Brad & Imani‘s insights made me realize that I was thinking of series in a very limited way. I was only considering a series as having the following criteria:

  • Set in the same world
  • Recurring characters
  • A forward-moving story that aims for cohesiveness across multiple books
  • There is a discrete end in sight, whether or not the author ever reaches it (coughrobertjordan)

In other words, the common model in the fantasy/sci fi world.

But I was not at all thinking about series that only feature the first two criteria: say, for example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. I must admit that I am not a big fan of detective fiction; though I adore Ruth Rendell, I don’t gravitate to her Inspector Wexford mysteries. Perhaps it’s that I’m a closure-junkie (my screenwriter side rearing its ugly head) but I’ve never really seen the appeal of a recurring character who doesn’t really develop over time. I get the feeling when reading these kinds of books that I’m just getting anecdotes, not story, if that makes sense.

Another variation is what you find in YA, chick lit, or romance–what I call “soap opera” books. These books satisfy the first three criteria, but not the fourth, because they’re intended to be neverending. I understand the appeal, though in this case you’re just getting the illusion of character development and story and not the real thing. The “candy” appellation is most appropriate.

It’s very rare to see trilogies or series in non-genre fiction. I think of Kristin Lavransdatter and Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy, but that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. Anyone have any other examples?

Am posting in advance of this afternoon’s work read. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about War and Peace, which I began a few nights ago. I’m forty pages into it and am utterly besotted. Tolstoy roolz!

15 thoughts on “Series vs. Recurring Characters”

  1. Would the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott count? I don’t know for sure, I only read the first volume (would still like to read the rest someday, though).
    –Terri

  2. Oh, in detective stories, the main part is finding the same person you see last time, solving crimes in his/her own “trademark” way. Of course, the characters do evolve over the time, they get married, have families, age and develop hobbies etc.

    Such series would cover a lot of the character’s life, on the other hand the series you wrote about would normally cover some part of his life. This means that the changes are more “normal”, and the characters change at normal rate, not due to any incidents/disasters.

  3. Book I is called The Jewel in the Crown and takes place in India sometime in the last decade before Indian independence. I don’t know about the time frame of the rest of the books. I highly recommend it.

  4. How about Tom Clancy’s informal ‘Jack Ryan’ series, including ‘Patriot Games’ (number two of the sequence)? Ryan seems to evolve with each story, lets passing years imply a sequence and likely end to the series.

  5. Well, the Jack Ryan books are espionage thrillers, and we’ve established that series/recurring characters are common in genre fiction.

    Terri–weren’t these made into a huge miniseries in the 80s? I’m inclined to call them genre as well, in the category of “historical fiction.” I might have to put Kristin Lavransdatter there, too, Sigrid Undset’s Nobel* notwithstanding.

    That really just leaves us with the Deptford Trilogy as the only example of a trilogy within so-called “literary fiction.” There have got to be others, though–right?

    *I keep saying Pulitzer, though I know I mean Nobel

  6. For romance I wouldn’t say that “never-ending” is the norm. There are prominent authors — Roberts, Evanovich, Laurell K. Hamilton — who do the never-ending stuff well (ie are financially successful) but more common are series with 4-6 books. You’re really only ever going to find those loooong romance series in paranormals ( a sub-genre) or Ms. Roberts whose one never-ender is mystery (of the crime procedural variety.)

    I’m also tempted to challenge the assertion that the character development in such books is illusory, although I’d only be able to refer to the Roberts mystery series. I don’t follow any of the others.

    John Banville wrote a “loose” trilogy: The Book of Evidence, Ghosts and Athena. Edward St. Aubyn has the “Some Hope” trilogy made into a quartet with this recent “Mother’s Milk”. A.S.Byatt did a quartet that started with “The Virgin in the Garden” and ended with “A Whistling Woman”. In general I think people regard Roberto Bolaño’s “Literatura nazi en América”, “Distant start” and “Amulet” as a loose trilogy too.

    Can’t think of any more off the top of my head just now. Oh and Undset is a Nobel winner so you can safely put her on the literary shelf. 😉

  7. I just got St. Aubyn’s trilogy from Bookmooch–thanks for the other ideas, too.

    I wouldn’t say that character development in open-ended series is completely illusory, only that character is secondary to plot and not so much a function of story. Personally, I prefer character driven stories where plot grows out of character.

  8. Miniseries… rings a bell, now that you mention it, but I didn’t watch it. Seems like volume 1 could probably fill up a miniseries by itself.

    Does setting a novel in some recognizable historical period automatically make it genre? I’d call Scott literary, just on the strength of his prose. I don’t know what the conventions of the “historical novel genre” are, but to my mind it’s when the novel mostly follows genre conventions that you consider it genre.

    I mean, ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ by Rushdie had some speculative elements, but most people wouldn’t call it SF.

  9. Maybe that’s why I disagree because in romance everything depends on character because, you know, there are only so many things you can do with the plot in the genre’s current form.

  10. In the examples you gave, I’d probably agree, though I haven’t read them, since you mentioned that they were series of only 4-6.

    I think character development only becomes null in open-ended “soap opera” type books. You can’t become invested in a character’s arc if you know things are going to change in the next book, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum. I keep thinking about Sweet Valley High, or Gossip Girls, or other YA series, mainly. Or take Nancy Drew–

  11. How could we forget–

    John Updike’s Rabbit Run et al…

    So lit fiction does enjoy keeping characters around for more than one book.

    (Thanks to the NY Times Crossword Puzzle forum for reminding me)

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