People – especially mystery fans – love books in a series. About half of what I read is fiction, but more than half of that is series fiction. Mostly mysteries, but also YA and a bit of fantasy. There are lots of reasons.
The characters are familiar and comfortable. After the first book in a series, the reader comes in knowing personalities and relationships already. Over time they become like friends.
The setting is (usually) established, so the reader is immediately grounded. At the first mention of a regular place of action in the story, be it a private investigator’s office, a small Alaska town, or a needlework shop, we know where we are, the atmosphere, the dimensions and the layout.
We get to get to know the characters better throughout the series. Events which we’ve been privy to have changed them over time. They grow as individuals and in relation to one another.
To be clear, there still has to be an engaging plot and believable (to a degree) chain of actions in order to hold our interest. It’s not all about people and place. But if we like the characters then we care about what happens to them. No amount of fabulous plotting can help if we don’t give a hoot about what happens to the people in the book.
I get to experience both sides of the series coin, as a reader an an author. Developing character arcs over several books is important. On one hand I think about what might happen several books down the line as a result of something that I’m writing now. On the other, lovely surprises pop up, the organic results of building a world and making things happen (or letting them happen, as the case may be) and keeping characters consistent.
When I brought Sophie Mae from Cadyville, Washington to Spring Creek, Colorado to look into her brother’s suicide in Something Borrowed, Something Bleu, I knew I was risking the comfortable series setting. That’s one reason why her cohorts had to come along to inhabit the new place with her for a bit. Also, since Sophie Mae is a first person protagonist, the setting is partially made up of her point of view, her take on things – and that remains unadulterated and consistent no matter where she is.
Even if a book is part of a series, it has to be able to stand on its own. That means walking the tightrope of explaining/showing relationships and personalities clearly – not to mention physical appearances and settings – while at the same time not boring readers who already know all that. It means referring to things that have happened in the past without any spoilers so that people can still go back and read the earlier books.
Do you have any favorite series? The ones you find yourself tapping your foot as you wait for the next one to come out? Are there any authors you think do an exceptional job growing their characters while at the same time offering books that stand alone as well?
Off the top of my head I’d cite Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries as personal favorites.