Monday, January 30, 2012

Stand-alone vs. Series

I've come to the conclusion that I don't like reading series.

<hides face in an overly-girlish-manner and waits for the backlash>

No really, I've read several series this year, and with every one, I liked the first book, sometimes the second one was okay, but I always had to push myself to get through the third one.

I'm trying to figure out why, but I do have a couple theories.

Is everyone familiar with Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory?

Essentially, it says that if a human's basic needs for survival (food, water, sleep, shelter, etc) are not being met, there's no way that person will be sparing a single thought for anything beyond that, especially other people's needs. We pretty much turn into animals and it's only when we're comfortable that we can spare the energy to be civilized.

In a series, the stakes have to go up with each additional book.

This means, in the first book, it's normally just about the main character saving their own ass (or someone they care about). As the series progresses, inevitably, the character starts caring less about their own needs/desires and gets all altruistic and sets out to save-the-world.

Which (personally) I find gets boring.

The characters become less flawed and become more saint-like. Even when their lives are threatened, if it's book 2 or 3 in the series, usually the character will choose to be noble rather than be selfish.

Maybe it's not that I find it boring, maybe I find it unrealistic? I think it's a rare person who can truly put the needs of strangers above their own, yet there are numerous series of books where the main character chooses to do so. It becomes... trite.

Perhaps it's just me.

I like self-destructive and broken characters. I enjoy reading about characters who are near the lowest point... and then receive a swift kick in the jaw. Anything with a raw fight for survival.

Now, it doesn't have to be all literal, like throwing a character out in the freezing cold and placing a starving bear next to them... often I prefer if it's psychological/emotional. But not angst. I don't do angst.

To clarify, it's that line between *savage/animal* and *civilized/human* that interests me. That knife-sharp-edge where a person finally looks up from their own wounds and realizes they're not the centre of the universe. That crystal-clear instant of self-awareness. Of character growth. Of deeper understanding that there's a bigger picture.

To me, that's real. That's interesting. It grips my attention and holds it. It could be anything, from a kid finally standing up to the class bully, to someone fighting with depression, self-harm, fighting with their siblings, or even living on their own for the first time. The struggles don't have to be life-or-death. It just has to be important to that character.

Maybe it's that I don't like heros. I've never cared for the 'evil-simply-cause-I'm-evil' bad-guy villain thing either. That whole right/wrong, good/evil binary-mentality feels too manufactured. Shades of grey are far more interesting to explore and closer to reality.

Perhaps it's 'cause the, "I'm going to save the world!" speeches tend to sounds a lot like presidential candidate/politician spin. Plato's theory of a philosopher king was certainly an interesting one, but I don't think there's a single chance it would ever work in real life.

But back to the problem of series I've read in the past year.

Do you remember the second 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie? The plot ended about 3/4 of the way through... and when I stood up to leave, it just kept going... and going... 'cause it had to pack in all the set-up for the third movie...

There were a number of great books I read last year which have sequels coming out this year. And I dread they're going to play out like PotC2. Even a couple of the first books were great up until the last few pages, where suddenly I was groaning and rolling my eyes 'cause they didn't end naturally... they had this awkward foundational work for the next book slapped in, almost like an afterthought. Like a bad epilogue, I found that soured my enjoyment of the rest of the book.*

What do you guys think? Do you prefer series or stand-alones? If 'yes' to the series thing, what do you think of the arc towards heroism that is so prevalent? Is it overdone, or is that one of the reasons you like series? Can you think of any good exceptions?

To those who write series, do you find it difficult to up-the-stakes in each book? Do you plan out the character/plot arc in advance before you start the first story?

*because of my policy to avoid spreading negativity, I'm deleting the page which listed what I've been reading to avoid anyone knowing which specific books I'm referring to. After all, just 'cause something isn't my cup-o-tea, doesn't mean others won't love it, and I don't think it's right to stomp all over what someone else likes.


  1. I've found that I prefer standalones over series, though I will read series, and there are some series that I've read over and over again, just like there are some standalones I've read over and over again.

    As far as writing, I'm in the middle of co-writing a long series, and that's more than enough for me. I prefer to write standalones. I have one story that I was so determined to keep as one book, but it got too long, and I had to split it into two books.

  2. bring up an interesting point. I know of a specific series that comes to mind where I couldn't even finish the second book because the drama of the first unfolded so perfectly.

    However, I'm not exactly one to favor stand alone over series. LOTR will probably always be the perfect example of a series. Every book involved more and more danger, conflict and build up of character courage to survive.

  3. I'm up in the air with this. I prefer a series if a story has a definite end and the author doesn't waste time getting there.

  4. Great points. Good thing my character in book two of my series is totally flawed, in a good way. But I agree. I enjoy a series if the stakes go up with each one and the character has something to learn with each part.

  5. I like reading a series...after it's over. I hate waiting. But I get what you're saying. Why is the bad guy bad? Why not let the MC have questionable moral issues?

  6. I think my favorites are the series in which each book has a satisfying ending, like Robin Hobbs Farseer Trilogy. I also think sometimes it's a series only because the author/agent/publishing house wanted to cash in, not because there's really another book. Then again, Martin's Song of Ice and Fire left everyone hanging each and every time and if you want flawed characters...they are all flawed, every single one.

  7. I agree with you even though I do like reading series. I think it depends on the book and the author. I think the stakes have to go up or it makes the series boring and you don't want that. Thanks for raising some great points.

  8. Though I agree there are several series that start off great and then go downhill, I still enjoy reading series more. I like really long stories, but I don't like holding a 900 page book. Too heavy!

  9. I find what is slowly but surely attracting me to writing a series (or at least the attempt at one I'm doing now) is the opportunity for character growth that a single novel seldom provides. I tend not to hold with epiphanic 'look! I am now a leopard changing my spots!' changes for characters and, unless a novel spans a good length of time it becomes unrealistic to expect actual growth or change.

    Not that all series do this -- I think that the longer they run, the less likely the characters are to continue to change and grow -- but there is an interesting and fun balance to be found in that, if and when possible. It probably helps when a series is set to a specific number of volumes, mind.

  10. I love this post, made me think a lot! I love series and stand alones, but I rarely love the later books in a series as much as the first. I tend to view first books in a series as getting to know the MC and the characters closest to them, and then I feel like a lot of that's lost in the later books because, yeah, the characters often tend toward being more concerned with others than themselves, and I understand putting others before yourself, but it often seems a little... generic? I don't know, you expressed everything very well. I do know that the series I love most are the ones that have characters who remained flawed, who make mistakes throughout the series instead of constantly putting everything ahead of themselves.


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