I fall in love with all my characters. I come to know them as I write, and slowly fall for each and every one. It is sometimes a slow process and other times moves at lightning speed. The attachment feels as real as though they are living breathing individuals. And when the time comes, it can be difficult to let go. But I manage it because I know that holding on past the affair’s end is often way more destructive.
In the past, I’ve been a little critical of the trend of writing sequels and trilogies because in some cases, it feels a little like a reluctance on the part of the writer to let go when it would be healthy — both for them and for the work they’ve created — to do so. I recently read a sequel to a surprise indie hit because, like most other readers, I was curious about where the author might take the characters. I liked the original well enough and the story, as far as I could see, had been very completely told in that first book. But still, I decided to take a crack at the well over four-hundred-page second installment wondering whether the writer might pull off something that could stand on its own as an independently solid piece of work, and hoping to learn something if she did.
It was very difficult for me to complete even the first chapter. One of the very first things I noticed was that it immediately “picked up where we left off” leaving little doubt that had you not read the prior installment, the new book would make no sense to you whatsoever. Still, that could have been a marketing ploy to reinvigorate sales of the first book, and I’m all in support of writers (especially indie authors) making gobs of money, so I chose to overlook that. I pressed ahead, intrigued by the idea that later on she may have managed to produce scenes that would expose new dimensions to her protagonists.
I was sorely disappointed. Instead, their already established character traits were amplified and became almost cartoonish. The jealousy became insane jealousy, the dysfunction became certifiably lunatic behavior and finally I stopped believing they were real. I could no longer picture these people in my mind’s eye: they became storybook people. Paradoxically, the more she amplified their personalities, the flatter they became. And to add insult to injury, new and outlandish characters and situations were added that sometimes felt like a distraction from the author’s fundamental inability to give us new fodder to fill out our remaining questions about the main protagonists.
I think I know what happened. The writer had fallen out of love with them, and was now belaboring their story to satisfy the appetite of her considerable fan base. And if the fan reactions are any indication, they were predominantly very happy. Still, a minority of fan reviews alluded to what I felt. Some used words like “staged”, “pointless” and “convenient” to describe the situations crafted by the writer. One reviewer said that she was bummed that the female lead “didn’t grow as a character.” Those criticisms are, I think, at the crux of why it’s tough to follow the same characters over time. Unless as a writer you’re still madly in love with them and able to discern and share new and fascinating things about their lives and their journey, I think the second or third in a series should remain unwritten.
I took a chance when I wrote Unsuitable Men because it revisited secondary characters from Commitment. I wanted to make sure I didn’t say something that had already been said, or say something that was a glaring contradiction of what had been said in ‘Commitment’. What it forced me to do was revisit my long-ended relationship with Commitment‘s main characters. That was tough and felt like the literary equivalent of sharing a house with your ex-husband. But what it did do is give me new respect for people who write long series of books that involve the same people over and over again and make each and every one seem new and fresh. If you can pull it off, more power to you but I suspect that a majority of us writers ought to accept the end of the affair and move on.