What Makes A Great Series?

The books I’ve read so far in Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” series

Many readers love a good series, no matter what genre. I think of Orson Scott Card’s “Enders” series in science fiction, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” in fantasy, Sharon Kay Penman’s historical fiction, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, just to name of few. Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” has provided a welcome diversion during the months of the pandemic–I’ve gotten through eleven of the seventeen books currently in the series.

What makes a great series? I think there are a number of factors. Here are some that are important to me.

Characters. I think this is foremost to me. Overall, I need to like the characters, especially the lead character or characters. In a series, I’m going to spend a lot of time with them. Would I enjoy having them to dinner or driving across country with them? I might not like all of them, but the chemistry of the ensemble is important. The one thing that is hard is when an author kills off a character we’ve come to care for.

Relationships. It is not only that we like individuals, but we like the relationships, such as between swashbuckling Jack Aubrey and the intelligent and somewhat mysterious Maturin. Of course, there is the classic relationship of Holmes and Watson. In Elizabeth Peabody’s Amelia Peabody series, you just have to love the relationship between Amelia and Emerson. In the Gamache series, there are multiple relationships–Armand and Gamache, Beauvoir and Ruth, Olivier and Gabri, and of course, Ruth and Rosa.

Setting: From the world-making of fantasy to the physical setting of a mystery series, setting matters. Louise Penny has created a fictional village many of us wish really existed. Good thing it doesn’t because we’d all move there and ruin it. Rivendell, and much of Middle Earth seems like the ideal place to live.

Development. I think of characters and plot. Do the characters grow? It doesn’t have to be linear. It can be fun when they surprise us. Part of what makes a good series as opposed to simply a collection of books with the same characters is a developing plot line, or even several plotlines. The corruption in the Surete in the Gamache stories and the development of Clara’s art, and the implications for Peter and others. This often means layered writing, where several plots are developing, with at least one coming to some kind of closure.

Stand-alone stories. I’ve read books in series that really felt like they were just serving as bridges to a subsequent book. While series work best when read in order, that doesn’t happen. I read #11 in the Gamache series because that is the one I first acquired. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was persuaded to go back to Still Life and read the series in order. I’m now up to #11, The Nature of the Beast, which I will re-read to see how it reads a second time.

Writing. Most series writers are not literary giants. What is helpful is prose that doesn’t get in the way. Some do this by page-turning action. Others are more “mental” and draw us into the psychology of characters. Some achieve a gradual build-up of tension that keep you reading.

They know when to end. For one thing, writers are mortal. Sometimes they write when they are past the peak of their powers. Sometimes they die before they finish, notably Robert Jordan in his “Wheel of Time” series. I thought Elizabeth Peters’ last books weren’t up to the standard of her earlier ones. Perhaps it is a human thing for one’s reach to exceed one’s grasp. And we don’t always know when death is coming. Sometimes the series itself needs to end, and it is best to go out strong rather than write one more subpar book.

I think a series appeals to the longing of every reader to know there are more good books to read than just the one in your hand. When I started over on Gamache, it was delightful to think that there were fourteen more (then fifteen and now sixteen) to go, hopefully each better than the last, or at least revealing new aspects of one’s favorite character’s persona.

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