Part 5: How to destroy a series
And now we reach the part of the series that actually spawned the whole idea. Lemme ‘splain. No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.
As most know, I am a HUGE Torchwood fan. Most particularly, I’m a huge Ianto fan. And any fan of Torchwood will tell you that the most recent season, Children of Earth, was very controversial, namely because they killed off our beloved teaboy. (see, toldja there would be spoilers!)
I watched the news of this event explode over Twitter, to the point where Ianto Jones was the top trending topic. This one single moment swept through the fandom like a nuclear bomb going off. People were crying (Ok, I admit I cried too), and frothing at the mouth, and threatening poor Russell T. Davies, and swearing they were never ever EVER going to watch another episode of Torchwood as long as they lived, yadda yadda.
And it got me to thinking. Did they just break their own series? Had they finally done the one thing the fans couldn’t accept? Would they really NEVER come back to the franchise?
Which led, obviously, to “what does it take to destroy a series?” And between Theo and I, we came up with two main causes of series implosion.
The first one, as illustrated by Torchwood, is betrayal. In writing a series, the author creates an implicit contract with the reader.
“I (state your name) do solemnly swear to entertain the masses by providing a gritty urban fantasy story involving the trials and tribulations of one Jorge the psychotic zombie marmoset.”
When the author violates this implicit contract, the fans get tetchy. This can happen in a variety of ways, but I think most often crops up when a favorite character is killed, or is otherwise changed into something different from what he was before.
Using the Torchwood example, we should know that at the end of their second season, they killed off not one, but TWO main characters. Everyone was stunned! Horrified! And yet, they all came back to watch Children of Earth. Why, then was killing Ianto in season three so different? My guess is that it was a “last straw” type of sentiment. Yes, the fans could adjust to killing off Owen and Tosh (if they had to), but to then further decimate the team immediately after was more than their grief centers could bear.
Does this mean that an author should never kill off a beloved character? Of course not! G.R.R. Martin has made killing people an art form. (that totally didn’t sound right) But there is a limit to how much “change” a fanbase can tolerate. If Jim Butcher killed off Harry Dresden, and continued the rest of the series with some other main character, no one would be very happy about it. The contract (to provide stories about a wizard from Chicago) would be null and void. (not to mention that the series title, The Dresden Files, wouldn’t make any sense then)
For another example, please consider Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. It is almost universally accepted that the first nine books of the series have a very different flavor than the books that followed. They went from a monster-of-the-week urban fantasy into almost pure erotica. A huge leap in genre! And consequently, some of the original fans felt betrayed. They felt that LKH had violated her contract by changing genres into something they didn’t want to read. They abandoned Anita and her boys in favor of other things, series that were more along their own tastes.
And that is the key to a “betrayal” scenario. Betrayal is about taking out the heart of a story. It's about breaking a contract with the audience. Authors, directors, so on, do things we dislike all the time but they still can make sense within the context of the contract.
As a side note: Even with minor changes or character developments, there will always be fans who scream and wail that the author betrayed them/killed off their favorite dust bunny/destroyed the perfect love interest/etc. (“OMG, Jorge would NEVER dye his fur blue, U suck, I h8 U 4evr!!!11!”) You can’t please all the people all of the time, and you shouldn’t try. That way lies madness.
Second side note: As a writer, I see what RTD is doing with the Torchwood series, and though I (the fan) shall always mourn Ianto, I (the writer) am anxious to see where he takes it from here (provided the BBC gives them a fourth season).
Another surefire way to kill a series is through apathy. Whose apathy? Well, it can be the fans’ apathy, or it can be the author’s.
First, a definition of apathy, per dictionary.com: 1. absence or suppression of passion, emotion, or excitement. 2. lack of interest in or concern for things that others find moving or exciting. Or, in layman’s terms “Who cares anymore?”
Apathy happens when someone loses interest. Why do they lose interest?
Well, fans can lose interest when years and years go by between series installments. We are used to insta-society. Microwaves spit out food in 30 seconds, you can watch movies instantly on your computer via different sites, and dangit, an author should be able to churn out a book in 30 days!
Ok, ok, not everybody is like this. In fact, most fans are very understanding when it takes a bit longer than planned to generate the next tale of Jorge the psychotic zombie marmoset. However, when “a bit longer than planned” turns into five years (or ten) then the fans have most likely moved on. Even the most diehard and rabid of Jorge’s fan club have to wonder why they keep hanging around, waiting and waiting and waiting. Without even a small dose of Jorge to keep the addiction current, they may find new fixes.
They can also lose interest when the story goes on and on and on and nothing happens. The hero learns nothing, the conflict is never resolved, and that fruitcake on Jorge’s kitchen table never gets eaten. There is a tricky balance between being faithful to your character, and being stagnant.
So, what if it’s not the fans that have grown weary, but the author? It happens. After thirty some odd years of churning out the same characters over and over, it’s possible that an author might start running out of ideas (or even the will to live). So, what is an author to do? It often seems that they keep trying to dredge up stories out of loyalty to the fans. The problem with this is that the stories can be sub-par, or even “jump the shark” so to speak. The solution would be to obviously end the series before it reaches this point of ennui for the author, but we can’t always predict when it will spring.
Trust me, however, the fans will notice. (They’re very smart that way, pesky little buggers) When the author’s heart is no longer with their characters, the readers will also drift away.
And what have we learned, children?
Writing a series is HARD! You have to think about all this STUFF, or nobody will want to play with you anymore!
Ok, no, not really.
The good news is, for most of you who are contemplating writing a series, a lot of this you’ll do instinctively. Because you’ve read series before (You have been reading, haven’t you? Santa is watching you.), or even watched one on TV, you have a basic understanding of how one goes together. You’ll know when it just feels right or wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on why. Hopefully, this little blog series of mine will help you put a name to that niggling impulse at the back of your mind that says “Hey, there’s something a bit off here.”
And I think this wraps up my babbling. In the next few days, we’ll be returning you to your regularly scheduled insanity. Please let me know if you enjoyed/hated this, and if there is anything else you’d like to see me rant on in the future.