Fantasy novels frequently run in series. One reason is that fantasy readers seem to expect it since J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Another reason is about how we, fantasy writers, envision the development of our stories. We do it in different ways, but one book is rarely enough for most fantasy writers, perhaps because we build our world from scratch. While the writers of mainstream fiction – stories that happen here and now – rely on their readers to know what’s going on, from geography and commerce to humor, in fantasy, even urban fantasy that utilizes our own world but adds magic to it, world-building is an important issue. Nobody knows how a particular fantasy world operates until its creator, the writer, comes forward and says: yes, there are dragons in my world. Yes, werewolves exist, and they are the good guys. That’s why ‘epic’ is a phenomenon almost unique to fantasy.
There are several different approaches to writing a series.
1. One story arch runs through several books of the series. All books have the same set of leading characters, although their importance for each particular book vary. George R.R. Martin and his Game of Thrones are a good representation of this approach.
Many such books have cliff-hanging endings—a literary device that I dislike, but many editors endorse because they think it would ensure that the readers stick with the series. I’m not certain it’s true for every reader. Definitely not for me. When I read a book ending in a cliff-hanger, I feel cheated. The writer promised me a story but delivered only a part of it. I get angry and I never read the next book.
Such approach also guarantees that the series had a limited number of entries: you can’t stretch the same story forever. The average number of volumes in such a series is three to five.
2. A series united by one hero. Such series often follow the same protagonist(s) chronologically, but each book has its own story, and it ends when the book ends. Sometimes, the hero has a faint subplot that runs through several or all books of the series, but that subplot is always secondary to the main storyline in each book. A good example: Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels.
In each book, Mercy has a different and dangerous adventure, performs different heroic deeds, battles a different villain, but she also lives her life from book to book. Her personal travails are on the periphery of her tale, but the dedicated readers of the series pay attention and cheer for them as well as engage wholeheartedly in the main plot.
Most books in this type of series could be read as stand-alone, and the number of volumes in such a series could be very high. Ten to twenty is not unheard of, but for some reason, such series often grow darker as they progress to the higher numbers. The protagonist’s exploits become more perilous, and the antagonists increase their vileness factor.
3. A series united by a world. That’s my favorite type of series. It often includes sub-series, like two book or trilogies about the same protagonist, but overall, each book belonging to such a series is a stand-alone. Each novel explores the world of the series through different characters in different times and places, although sometimes they overlap. The tales go back and forth over their world’s history, explore flora and fauna, analyze various religions, and send their protagonists on journeys across all sorts of wild and urban landscapes. A whole world lies open in front of them.
Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series belongs to this group. In one interview with her, she said that she intentionally started writing her Valdemar series open-ended. She introduced different countries and different cultural conflicts in the first book and then concentrated on one specific problem for one specific heroine. She is still exploring that world after more than 20 novels and a few short story collections. In general, the possible number of books in such a series is almost unlimited.
About the Author:
My novels Eagle En Garde and Almost Adept belong to this type of series. They both happen in the same world but in different countries with different protagonists. I plan to continue both sub-series, and my leading characters might even meet one day, but there are also other facets of my world waiting to be explored. There are other characters and other time periods, and they all deserve to have their own stories.