On worldbuilding, sequels and keeping it all straight
As I was trying to figure out what to write about today, I came across this article. It’s a fairly good short — note the short — description of some of the problems writers fall into when sticking to worldbuilding tropes. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them but, as with anything, if you rely on tropes too much, your run the risk of turning your work into something much too predictable to maintain steam.
But what the article really started me thinking about is how you maintain an overall story arc — and keeping your characters in, well, character — over the course of several books or a lengthy series. It is a problem you see in books, movies, TV shows and even gaming. You want your characters to grow. You want to have them suffer as well as have joy. But, if you want to keep your readers happy and not have them throwing the book — or game or whatever — across the room, you can’t have them acting one way in one installment and then turn them into something completely different in another. Or, if you do, you have to have a pretty darned good reason for doing it.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, your readers expect your character to react in a certain way unless there are new outside factors impacting his decision making. For instance, even though it was very early in the series, we already knew in Honor of the Queen, that Honor Harrington was a competent and extremely talented officer. Because of how she was raised, from the philosophy and example set by her parents, as well as the society she grew up in, she did not understand or “get” a society that believed women were not just as competent and capable as men. So, when she was given the assignment to transport Manticore’s representatives to meet with Protector Benjamin Mayhew on Grayson, we as readers expected her to be her usual, competent and often brilliant self. However, because of some of her own insecurities, it didn’t surprise us when she took her ship away from Grayson, leaving another ship, one with a male commander (iirc) there.
What would have surprised me is if Honor had pushed herself and her abilities at the Protector and the rest of the planet from the very beginning. That wasn’t the Honor we knew. She was still young and still had personal demons she was fighting, demons that often undermined her self-confidence everywhere but in battle. She would see her initial withdrawal as making it easier for Manticore’s reps to do their duty on Grayson. The events that played out helped force her to deal with the fact that she couldn’t let those insecurities impact her decisions as an officer and did, in my opinion, help push her down the road into healing and moving past what had happened so long ago.
Now if, instead of having Honor withdraw from the planet when she saw how her presence was impacting the Grayson media and more hidebound members, Weber had her force the issue and throw the fact she was female and every bit as capable as a man in the faces of the patriarchal society that Grayson was, it would not have been in character and the book would have gone against the wall. There had to be a trigger to push Honor into stepping away from her shyness and from her doubts. She needed something to make her take an in-your-face approach to the Protector. That trigger was an attack on the planet that led to the death of her beloved mentor. Now she had a personal stake and she was, by God, going to do her duty not only to her Queen but to their prospective allies as well.
That was the Honor we had come to know in the previous two books and it is an Honor who has grown and matured over the course of the rest of the series.
Unfortunately, that sort of growth and consistency isn’t always present. Sometimes it happens when an author — for whatever reason — takes a series and warps it from one genre to another. One example of this is what Laurell K. Hamilton did with the Anita Black series. When the series began, it was firmly in the realm of urban fantasy. The story revolved around Anita Blake and her work dealing with rogue vampires. She was basically a bounty hunter with a license to kill vamps that didn’t follow the rules. In other words, it was a modified police procedural/mystery.
After half a dozen or so books in the series, it went to paranormal romance and then to what can only be called erotica. Why? Because the plot no longer centered on Anita’s work but on her sex life. She went from being a human who was also a necromancer to being basically a necromancer and a succubus and a were leader and mistress of a vampire and who knows what else. To me, and to a lot of other readers, Anita had been broken and the books no longer held the “must read” tag they once had. Friends who did stick with the series have said that Hamilton has gone back to something more akin to the early books but I’ve not returned to the series. Hamilton broke trust with me when she made a major change in Anita’s character without adequate explanation or reason other than someone thought it would sell more books.
In gaming, I have seen this at work as well. The latest example is in the Borderlands series. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are fun games. While the plot is thin in Borderlands, nothing all that new to gaming, it is more apparent in B2. There is a consistency in characters, characterization of classes and in lore between the two games. B2 very clearly built upon the legacy of Borderlands and expanded upon it.
Not long ago, the game developers released what they have called a “pre-sequel” in the series. Appropriately titled “Borderlands – the Pre Sequel”, it falls chronologically between Borderlands and B2. Which it had to since one of the main characters, even if a non-playable character, was killed at the end of B2. My problem is that it takes characters we’ve known from the other two games as basically the good guys and makes them not so good. They set up and then betray Jack. That, in turn, leads to him becoming the evil madman who is the bad guy in B2. So here you have the villain you killed in B2 acting as basically the hero, albeit a slightly unhinged one from the very beginning of the game. The good guys from Borderlands are now basically the bad guys and they are responsible for what happens in B2 — something that you aren’t given any clue of in B2.
But it is the hanging threads from the pre-sequel that bother me, especially when I think about those who might play the games for the first time in chronological order. The pre-sequel takes characters and classes from the first game and use one of them — I’m trying not to give too many spoilers here. Sorry — to warn of problems to come. The only problem is, none of those problems are shown in B2. So, as far as I’m concerned, Gearbox and Gearbox Australia have dropped the ball and they need to get Borderlands 3 out soon.
In this case, they broke the timeline, another problem you can find yourself faced with in writing series. So, keep your notes about your characters and timeline and all the details that can trip you up close at hand. You might not think it important if you vary from the world you’ve built but your readers will. More than that, they will remember and their good will only lasts so long.