Tuesday, April 28, 2009 - 10:10 AM

One of the facets I enjoy most about reading a series is how the series develops over time. Sometimes you see some remarkable changes in the author's approach. Sometimes the story style itself is very consistent but the characters change tremendously over time. Generally, when I plan a story, I don't intend for it to be part of a series, unless it is a short story or some kind of serialized fiction. But the notion of a series intrigues me. There is potential there for a story of profound depth and power.

The reason why this is on my mind is that I am currently at the far end of the Anita Blake series, by Laurell K. Hamilton. I have not read the most recent four books or so, and I thought I'd get the full experience by starting at the beginning. In part, this is market research; it is a similar genre as the Customs book that I am working on, and it is a very popular series. So, while reading, I am paying attention to how she presents conflict, and how she presents the interactions between the mundane and the supernatural. But I am also noticing how much her series has changed from the beginning.

You can speculate quite a lot on why authors shift things the way they do. I will be the first to admit that I am a writer whose personal life does edge its way into my writing. I can't help it. Writing is a very pure mode of expression, after all. That said, I'll state right out that I enjoyed the early Blake books. They were quirky, interesting, and combined some facets of the mystery genre with the modern supernatural. Being a huge fan of the William Monk series by Anne Perry, I'm definitely fond of mysteries with a lot of personal tension.

(Also, William Monk is hardcore. Don't mess with the man.)

But something happened, and the series changed. I'm currently trying to push through 'Incubus Dreams' right now, and it's a terribly tedious read. I have actually had to put the book down twice because my brain was refusing to participate in yet another pages-long metaphysical scratch-n-sniff discussion of sex magic. Don't get me wrong, I like sexy literature, but it seems like every (small) chapter starts with an orgasmic scream, sometimes in stereo. The Lemur says that the next couple books aren't so bad, and I certainly hope not.

What particularly bothers me is that somewhere along the line, the characters all seemed to have walked into a rut and stayed there. Now, granted, this happens in real life more often than I'd like, but it doesn't tend to make for a very interesting story, particularly when the story is being told from the point of view of one of the people in a rut. I've read books with main characters I loathed before (Thomas Covenant, anyone?) but generally the story and the writing were enough to keep me going, and in the case of obnoxiously defiant Thomas Covenant, it was worth it.

But I don't loathe Anita Blake. She's stubborn, ridiculously sexist and hypocritical, and probably teetering on the edge of psychotic, but I don't loathe her. In fact, a character like that can be very interesting to read about sometimes. But I don't particularly like her either. A character must generate sympathy somehow to be really effective, and I just don't have any with Anita. It's gotten to the point where her initial humanity has faded off to an occasional one-liner of guilt in a growing cloud of dominance contests, sexual politics and all-too-frequent crises in which Anita must save yet another person from harm.

Previously, I had a feel for Anita's progression. Now, I don't feel like she's going anywhere, and the sense of stagnation gets into all of the little cracks and chinks of the story arc. I'm going to finish up the series as it exists at this time, just to see if it changes at all, but at the moment, I am making a lot of mental notes of things I want to avoid in my own writing.

So, why is the series so popular? Melodrama and sex. People love both of these, much as they don't want to admit it, and particularly the later books are full of them. The relationship entanglements combined with Anita's general repression are hilariously complicated, and the level of emotional stress is huge. Which of course, expresses itself in tons of semi-mystical kinky sex.

I'm afraid that I cannot bring myself to write anything so melodramatic, but it does make me aware of one thing. I don't have enough practice writing something sexy, which is something I should be working on. It's important for a writer to explore different venues of inspiration, and writing about sexy topics is not only good exercise but it is aiming at an area of universal appeal. So, this is another lesson I'm learning from rereading the Blake series.

Even the repressed love sexy things, whatever Anita might say.



At April 29, 2009 11:05 AM, Blogger Montgomery Mullen said...

The hard part about that is frequently, a character starts writing itself. It doesn't want to be forced into a preplanned progression, and though you might persuade it, if you do attempt to force the issue it really does impact the writing. The narrative feels stilted, restricted.

I do agree, however, that anyone writing a series should decide at the least where they want it to end up. Establishing that structure in the mind early will affect the flow of writing subconsciously.


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