Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Serial Killers

The third book of the Caribbean Adventure Series is finally out. In many ways Trapped in Dunston's Cave (a.k.a. TIDC) has been the most difficult book in the series to produce. I started it while adjusting to life in Ghana and it is also the first book published under the CaribbeanReads Publishing label, a process during which I climbed a very steep learning curve.

One of the significant challenges that I faced in writing TIDC is one that I believe is faced by many who choose to write a series of books about young children. (Some parents face a similar dilemma with their own children.)

How do you handle the fact that time moves on and your characters want to grow at a faster pace than you and your readers may prefer?

As time passes, children's interests, issues and challenges change. An author writing a series with adult protagonists can write years and years worth of drama without coming across this issue. Television soap operas are a testimony to that fact. On the other hand, the writer of children's books has to decide whether to keep the children (miraculously) around the same age group or to have them grow out of the target age group of the series.

I have seen this addressed successfully in two different ways.

The first approach is to focus on an engaging plot where the protagonists are interesting but somewhat secondary. The characters in Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and the Magic Tree House series are examples of characters who changed and developed very little. The Magic Tree House Series is about the adventures of a pair of siblings, Jack and Annie. There are over 40 books in the series, however, apart from some maturing of the younger of the pair, they seem to remain the same age throughout. The plots get a bit more involved as the series progresses but children remain more or less the same age and character.

This approach lends itself to a younger audience. The advantage is that it allows the author to focus on the story line however, it becomes more difficult to create a multi-dimension character and as children get older they want to read about characters like themselves. As a result, readers grow out of these series fairly quickly and the author has to continuously attract new readers.

A second approach is to develop characters that are the center piece of the plot. We see this exemplified in series like Narnia and Harry Potter. Harry Potter and his friends mature each year and the author introduces romantic relationships and other issues children face as they mature. This approach limits the number of books that the author can produce before the characters grow beyond the bounds of a children's book but it means that the author has the freedom to create characters that are truly engaging. These authors keep their readership with each book, which means that marketing is less expensive and potentially more successful.

In Trapped in Dunston's Cave, I balanced a bit on the line between these two approaches, however, I will have to take a plunge in book 4.


Charles Gramlich said...

I have liked both kinds of books. I loved the "Three investigators" series when I was a kid and was happy that the characters didn't change from book to book. On the other hand, I haven't enjoyed such books as an adult while I still can read about Harry potter as an adult and really enjoy it.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I like keeping the characters consistent. Marketing to new readers isn't that difficult if the series is already known. The Magig Tree House, for example, gets a new batch of second and third graders each year, without the authors or publishers going out and actively courting a new set of readers. Word of mouth is a good thing.

Carol Mitchell said...

Charles, that is a good point; the second type of book can attract an adult audience as well.

Jewel, another point for the other side - if you have the school market capitivated, you can have a captive audience with the teachers.

KeVin K. said...

CJ Cherryh's Atevi series is written for adults, but it gets around the time factor by not having any -- or having very little -- time elapse between volumes.
With a serial anchored to a place such as Redwall or a thing such as the magic treehouse your protagonists can age gracefully out of the series and their roles be taken by a new generation of adventurers.

Carol Mitchell said...

Good point, KeVin, although my son, who loved Redwall, lost some interest when one of his favorite characters exited stage left.