I recently had the pleasure of reading the first two books in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series, and this got me thinking about the nature of episodic science fiction and fantasy. By episodic series, I’m thinking a four, five, ten book series where each book is a standalone story where the series’ principal character goes on whatever type of adventure is typical for that character. Think books like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. How are these kinds of episodic books constructed? What makes them tick?
NOTE! This is the first in a three part series of posts. This post is focused on the episodic hero. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on the episodic plot, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.
Epic vs Episodic: What’s the difference?
Science fiction and fantasy are replete with series. That’s perfectly reasonable, when we consider that publishers, authors, and agents all love the “automatically” accumulating reprint sales that series make possible. But it is quite difficult to compare Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. There just isn’t that much commonality there.
Series like The Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time are epic in scope. They tell one story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But that one story does not fit in one book: it has to be spread across multiple volumes. The vast majority of these epic series simply cannot be read on a standalone basis (for a great counter-example, see my review of N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms).
If you look at an episodic series like Butcher’s Dresden Files or Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels, the series itself has a very different structure. Each book is a completely self-contained story, with its own beginning and ending that can be read independently of the other books in the series. And in contemporary series, each book and the entire series focuses on the experiences of one particular character.
Building an Episodic Character
In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books were structured around a single universe (Shannara, Pern, and Valdemar, respectively) with standalone trilogies (or duologies) of books set within that universe. Each standalone sub-series could be described as an “epic” sub-series, while if we take the entire oevre together they begin to resemble episodic series. However, following the late ’90s’ rise of “Chihuahua-killer” fantasy tomes, these types of episodic/epic series seem to have vanished from publishers’ new lists.
With the contemporary focus on one character, that character becomes the most important aspect of an episodic series. This is true whether we’re writing an adult urban fantasy series like the Twenty Palaces, a paranormal romance mystery (à la Charlaine Harris), or a middle-grade adventure series (like Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Of course, character matters in every book. But it is the foundation of any episodic series.
What would Sherlock Holmes be without Sherlock Holmes? Could we have the Dresden Files without Harry Dresden? Or the Sookie Stackhouse novels without Sookie? The identity of the series’ protagonist is intrinsically tied up with the identify of the series. Few people realize that the Sookie Stackhouse novels were in fact first dubbed the “Southern Vampires Mysteries”: the pervasive character of their protagonist eventually subsumed the publisher’s attempts to brand the series independently of its hero.
There is a lot of commonality in how episodic authors create their heroes. First, almost all episodic heroes have a Past (note the capital “P”). In many ways, this is a product of the history of episodic series, who are pretty clear descendants of the serialized mystery (Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, etc.). When we meet Connolly’s Ray Lilly, or when we meet Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos each brings to the table a checkered history.
Ray Lilly is an ex-con who survived an unpleasant run-in with magic, and now finds himself employed as a “wooden man” (a sort of enforcer) for a society of wizards (called the “Twenty Palaces Society”). Harry Dresden is a professional wizard private investigator who has had serious altercations with magical society. Vlad Taltos is a low-ranking minority (human) criminal in a larger criminal organization on a magic-filled secondary world.
Each is in some fashion iconoclastic. They have survived altercations with some form of authority in their world, which gives them some form of reputation. This reputation becomes a double-edged sword that both helps and hinders the hero on their adventures. As the books unfold, the reader learns more of this backstory through subtly planted information, for the most part avoiding an infodump that would stall the fast pace of the story. As the series winds to a conclusion, the overarching conclusion likely leads to some resolution of the lingering effects of that backstory.
Every one of these characters is gainfully employed. What’s more, they have jobs that will force them into adventures. Lilly is an enforcer. Dresden is a wizard/private-eye. Taltos is a low-level crime boss/private-eye/assassin. It is their means of employment that makes a long, episodic series possible. A detective will always have another case. An enforcer will always have another assignment. An assassin will always have another target. This enforces a certain structure, along with certain strictures, on each book in the series.
When we meet the hero, they are often inexperienced in some critical aspect. Ray Lilly knows almost nothing about magic, save that it exists. Harry Dresden has lots of magical power, but very little control. Any middle-grade or young adult episodic series (like Artemis Fowl or The 39 Clues) has inexperienced heroes by default: youth and inexperience go hand-in-hand! The use of inexperience makes it possible for the reader to learn alongside the hero, and for the hero to progress through adventures (books) with escalating challenges. As the hero’s experience increases over the course of the series, the challenges that they face can become more difficult, more challenging, more dangerous. Done artfully, this keeps the tension high in the later books in the series, and if tied back to the character’s emotional development can keep the character engaging, whether we’re in book two or twelve.
The use of iconoclasm and employment are both traditional tools of the mystery novel. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, even Sam Spade – all of the classic detectives were iconoclastic, and the vast majority were actively employed as detectives. The use of inexperience to provide character progression seems to be a newer development, and it is one that an increasing number of episodic series rely on.
NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment for episodic plots, how to keep the reader reading in one book, and how to avoid flagging interest as the series progresses.