I’ve written both series and standalone books. The series books are more popular. A quick look at Amazon shows that this is a general trend. The bestseller charts are dominated by series books across most genres, including romance, mystery/thriller, and science fiction and fantasy. Readers seem to love series. But writing them presents some challenges. A series book has some limitations and drawbacks that a standalone novel does not. As a writer, one of my goals is to write good series books while navigating around these potential pitfalls.
Familiarity versus Character Growth
One reason readers return to a favorite series because they enjoy a familiarity with the recurring characters, usually the main character in particular. Maintaining this familiarity requires keeping the main character mostly consistent from book to book. However, doing so risks sacrificing one of storytelling’s most potentially powerful devices: the character arc.
A self-contained, standalone novel can easily feature a strong character arc. The protagonist begins the story as one type of person, and ends the story as a significantly changed person. The reader experiences the change over the course of the novel alongside the character. If handled well, the arc can be incredibly moving and bring a satisfying feeling of finality and closure.
This type of arc is more difficult to pull off in a series novel because too much closure would cut off the possibility of future installments in the series. Also, if the character arc changes the main character too much, you jeopardize the sense of familiarity and connection that draws readers to the series.
In the Jessie Black books, I’ve tried to strike a balance by including a character arc for at least one secondary character in each book. Jessie herself doesn’t change significantly from book to book, and I don’t want her to. Readers return to the series because they like her as she is—smart and determined, ethical and compassionate. By including character arcs for other characters to experience with Jessie’s help, I’ve hopefully added emotional depth without sacrificing familiarity. For example, Kristen Dillard in Burnout undergoes an emotionally-charged character arc, as does Reggie Tuck in Informant. These side characters only appear in individual books, so giving them complete arcs does not impact other books in the series.
Another risk of the series book is plausibility. Readers will suspend their disbelief in exchange for a good story, but there is a limit to what even the more generous reader will believe. Especially in the thriller genre, every book in a series represents another high-stakes, life-or-death conflict for the main character. Pile up too many of these in one character’s life, and things start to feel contrived.
The best way I’ve come up with to avoid this risk is to give the main character an occupation that believably places them in high-stakes situations on a regular basis. Jessie is a homicide prosecutor. Dealing with murderers is her job. This seems a lot more plausible than a florist who routinely encounters murderers (that setup can work in a cozy mystery series, but some believability is sacrificed). And even with Jessie’s legitimately dangerous career as justification for her series of life-and-death encounters, I still received one review from a reader questioning why Jessie wasn’t suffering from PTSD after all she’s been through. A valid point.
One final risk of a series is creative stagnation. When every book features the same character, and follows a similar story structure, there is a risk that the series will begin to feel rote. I’m only three books into the Jessie Black series so far (with number four coming soon), and I haven’t really faced this problem yet. However, I can imagine that nine or ten books into the series, keeping things fresh could become more of a challenge. I don’t want the series to ever become boring or predictable (as opposed to familiar), so this is a risk I will need to be vigilant about.
Even with these drawbacks, I’ll continue to write (and read) series books. The bond between a reader and a series character is kind of amazing when you think about it, a friendship based solely on words on a page. It thrills me when I hear from a reader who’s formed a connection with one of my characters. I plan to keep writing about Jessie for as long as fans want to read about her. (And I’ll probably start some new series as well.)
What do you think? Do you prefer series or standalone novels? Please let me know in the comments!