The world of epic

It must be hard to write a trilogy. I mean seriously, how do you even begin? I’m not talking about series’ here; not a series of individual stories wound within a larger plot like Scott Lynch’s ‘Lock Lamora’ novels or even my Antarctic trilogy. I’m talking about Lord of the Rings style epicness, or Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series.

I wrote about Joe Abercrombie’s work a few weeks ago. I had problems with it, but I stuck at it. I’m glad I did because I’m enjoying it, but there are issues. In the first book there is a character that has almost no redeeming features. Arrogant, shallow and privileged, I could see that his ‘journey’ was going to be one of learnt humility and discovering that the world didn’t exist for his benefit. But he barely changed over the course of that first (long) book.

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Now, halfway through the second, those changes are starting to occur. This might be the perfect time in terms of the story and in terms of the series as a whole – but he basically spoiled the first section. Do readers accept this? I did. There was enough about The Blade Itself to make me want to read the follow-up. But how many readers were put off by the lack of development? I don’t know if it’s an incentive or a discouragement that book one didn’t end with any sort of resolution: the novel ended so obviously mid-flow that it wasn’t like reading a full novel at all.

It may be that my puzzlement is because these epic-style stories aren’t that common, at least in my experience. The Harry Potter series doesn’t really count because – except possibly as it gears up to the finale – all the mysteries are resolved within each individual episode. There is a clear arc within each novel as Voldemort and his minions are sent packing: the villain remains a thread running through the series, but each book stands on its own.

The same applies for all crime novels that I can think of: Inspector Rebus becomes aware of a crime and solves it. He may grow, become richer and deeper and more entangled with his supporting cast on each case, but the culprit isn’t left hanging (not literally) between books. A resolution is achieved. Ditto Morse, and Brunetti, Lord Peter Wimsey &c &c

In a single book – where a protagonist encounters finds and overcomes a specific problem – we can see change. We expect change. The protagonist will be a different person at the end of the story. If that character then goes on to star in subsequent novels the inverse problem occurs: how can they change further? How can we feel the character-arc we’re used to? There comes a point where we, as readers, settle for comfort, for familiarity: the character becomes an archetype of their own and just being in their presence is enough.

I’ve always had problems with Lord of the Rings (and are these epic-style books solely limited to SFF? I struggle to think of other examples). The characters just don’t change, even across the whole six books. This is especially galling in the case of Sam Gamgee, the real hero of the series. He’s presented as the same plodding simpleton from beginning to end: even when he returns to the Shire to become mayor we’re told that he rules well. We’re not shown any wisdom or depth. Conversely Aragorn is the master-ruler from the very first meeting to the last. The only character in LotR with any depth is Borimir, and we all know how that turns out.

So, in summary: long, multi-book series = difficult. I’d be interested to know your experiences and recommendations. Do you like them, or do they leave you cold? Or have I just missed the point completely?

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2 thoughts on “The world of epic

  1. I viewed writing my trilogy a little like looking at fractals, if that makes sense. The three books were the Acts I, II and III of the entire story; each book also had its own three acts with a smaller plot arc. For each book, I focused about 75% on its own story arcs, with the remaining 25% tying into the larger one. It was a matter of being able to see the bell-curve of the three-act play both on a single-book and multi-book level. It’s tricky, but it can be done.

    With LotR, my wife put it really well: it was written by a word nerd, not a storyteller. The characters may be a bit flat and the action is a bit predictable, but it’s one hell of a lovely read!

    If anything, I tend to veer towards finite series, whether they’re trilogies or slightly longer books. Most of the popular long series with no set-in-stone-yet ending (like those from Jim Butcher or Seanan McGuire) are fun to read, but I always find myself losing interest after about the fifth book, as the evolution of the series tends to be far too slow.

    On the other hand, if it’s a very long series and the character development is rich and constant and the plot continuously evolves, then I usually really enjoy it. [Thinking of the Naruto manga, which spanned 72 volumes (!!) but it works because the characters constantly change and evolve, even the tertiary ones.]

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like the fractal idea; I think that’s how I’d try to do it if I were to write a big, linked trilogy. And I think your wife’s right about LotR too. It’s one of those works where it;s importance has overshadowed its merits/faults, almost beyond criticism because it changed the landscape. A bit like the Beatles, really.

      I’ve not read the Naruto series but I know what you mean about evolution. It’s a good option is to switch focus from major- to minor characters and make them protagonists in their own right. Charles Stross is doing that with his Laundry series. I wonder if there’s a natural lifespan for a character before it becomes necessary to move on

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