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Sequels and Prequels

“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.”   Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books

One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases.   Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer.   Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.

The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with.   One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it.   Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD.   Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO).   Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.”   But what happens when Triple Whammy is released?   PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists.   (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)

An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character.   One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky.   Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels.   (Was V. I. getting soft?)   Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books.   Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!

So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character.   He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives.   Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?

There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough.   What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income?   What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles?   This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point.   That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.

The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating.   The key word, though, is skill.

Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel.   This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character.   In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…

Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones.   When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties.   If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural.   But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow.   The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this?   I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”

Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different.   Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version.   But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”

The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character.   But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love.   These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough.   One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon.   It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one!   But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks!   Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now.   Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”

A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant.   Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome!   Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This article is one in a continuing series.

Pictured:   Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.

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