by Mike Reeves-McMillan
I grew up in the 80s, reading epic fantasy – and some science fiction – that had grand arcs across multiple thick books. Usually, there was a central hero with a group of sidekicks and helpers, and he (it was always he) was the only one who could take on the Great Big Cosmic Bad Guy and save the world.
You had to start at Book 1 of these series. I got a lot of my books from the library in those days, and I would occasionally pick up a Book 2 by mistake, start reading the first chapter, have no idea who these people were and why they were fighting, and put it back down again, to perhaps return to someday after I’d managed to find Book 1 and get the context.
In the 90s, though, I broadened my reading, and I discovered two authors in particular who gave me a different idea of what a series could look like. One was Terry Pratchett, whose series was mostly unified by its setting: a disc-shaped world, drifting through space on the back of a turtle. Within that world were multiple locations and multiple groups of characters, and although they occasionally crossed over in later books, it wasn’t necessary for them to do so for their stories to be important. Each book was self-contained, though they sometimes formed mini-series with the same groups of characters. And there was no series arc, no single hero or villain, no grand march of history towards an epic confrontation.
The other author who challenged my idea of “series” was Robertson Davies, a Canadian academic who wrote literary fiction with, often but not always, a supernatural or weird twist of some kind. His books were grouped into trilogies, but the connection between the books was not an overarching storyline but, again, primarily a shared setting. More importantly, main characters in one book would become minor characters in the next, and vice versa.
So when I set out to write a series of my own, I didn’t feel the need to set up a giant arc or a recurring villain. Instead, I pre-sketched a spacious setting, with room to evolve and change, and started telling stories in it. I could feature different groups of characters, and even look at the same major events from different angles in books with parallel timescales; all of the first three books overlap in time, for example, though since then I haven’t done that so much.
What ended up happening – looking back with the benefit of having just published the sixth book in the series – was that a couple of key events in the first book became the seeds of the rest. In the first book published, Realmgolds, there’s a brief but significant war, partly triggered by the emancipation of the gnomes from their dwarvish masters; all the other books deal with the important changes arising from the war and the emancipation.
It’s a steampunkish series set in a secondary world, and I wanted to deal with technological and social change and how that affects people. I ended up treating it science-fictionally, drawing on both the Victorian era and our own for inspiration about what a society going through technological and social change could look like, and what kind of challenges people might face as a consequence.
My setting is deliberately presented as a well-governed society, but it’s no utopia. Plenty of people are unhappy with the changes, and willing to oppose them with force. It’s positive SFF, but all is not rainbows. Apart from Realmgolds, it’s not about the rulers; it’s about ordinary people, including engineers and civil servants and journalists, stepping up and standing up for what they believe is right.
Because I don’t have a grand arc, each book can stand by itself and be a potential entry point into the series – which is good, because I naturally got better at writing in the later books. I do carry over characters from one book to the next, but sometimes I Robertson Davies them, switching major and minor characters around. And after the first three, each book tends to draw on the resolution of the previous book as a starting point for a new set of problems.
That’s easier than you might think. For example, the resolution of Hope and the Clever Man includes Hope, a talented young mage, finally meeting a decent man who she might be able to build a relationship with. The next book, Hope and the Patient Man, opens with their disastrous first date.
The other advantage of not having a grand arc is that I can follow interesting directions that I didn’t plan in advance. The book I’ve just published, Illustrated Gnome News, is all about a newspaper and its staff as they struggle to balance following their ideals with the weight of people’s expectations. It exists only because I needed a newspaper in the previous book, Mister Bucket for Assembly, to rally support for a political candidate. A lot of the conflicts the characters face in Illustrated Gnome News are ones that Mister Bucket brought into the public arena – and they all trace back to gnome emancipation. Yet the book stands alone, and you could start there and not be at all confused.
What I’m saying is that you can have something that’s clearly a series, that’s connected and flows together, without it having to be one huge story about one huge hero/villain struggle. It helps to go in with the attitude that anyone can be a hero, even if they’re not at the heart of great events; they can be dealing with the consequences of great events in a courageous and creative manner.
And you can tell all kinds of stories in a series like that. Illustrated Gnome News combines mystery, romance, saving the business, standing up for the oppressed, and coming of age, all unified by a theme of authenticity versus doing what’s expected (it’s… not a short book). The seventh book, Capital Crimes, will be a steampunk techno-thriller. I’ve had political intrigue, diplomacy, magic, engineering, war, love, family drama, a race, an election, and several riots so far, and there’s plenty more to come. Discovery, exploration, adventure, espionage, heists… anything is possible. There’s enough weight to the setting and key events to anchor everything together, but enough space to allow me to follow my heart in interesting directions.
There’s nothing wrong with the classic “series arc, recurring villain” approach, of course. I use it myself in my Auckland Allies urban fantasy books (where I deliberately set out to explore a completely different set of constraints from my main series). But moving beyond it gives me access to possibilities that I couldn’t gain within it. And aren’t possibilities what speculative fiction is all about?
Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable and there are a lot more wizards. You can find out more about his books (and his many thoughts on speculative fiction and writing) at The Gryphon Clerks.