Consider this more of a rant than a real examination of writing as such. There’s nothing quite like a breakdown of what’s going on here, mainly because the character arcs aren’t resolved yet and the stories in them aren’t over. There’s holes in what’s going on and the picture isn’t complete. But the picture that I’m getting points towards some of the problems with managing your characters in a very long running series.
As you’ve probably gathered by the title, this is about the main character of the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire, which I’ve recommended in the past. I recently finished the most recent installment, The Winter Long, and it was mostly everything I expected of it. But it’s developed a problem I’ve noticed in a lot of long running series and rarely effectively addressed.
So for starters, what is the problem?
Basically, the problem is familiarity versus dynamic characterization.
We all know the feeling of coming back to the characters we know and love for another round of fun and hijinks. This is what makes TV shows, particularly sitcoms or some of the light hearted dramas, run for so long. They start with a bunch of people we know, they throw a new problem at them, and when the dust settles the problem is dealt with and the people go back to what they were doing before. Status Quo is God. There’s no problem with that, it’s part of the formula.
But in most books it’s taken as a given that characters, both the central cast and some or even all of the peripheral characters, need to change some over the course of a story. Given that books (and movies) are a format that allows for a much deeper and more extensive exploration of characters than even an hour long TV show; there’s more room for it to take place and we expect it. Regardless of whether character development is the focus of the story, it’s expected.
The problem that long running series encounter is that, as your characters are growing and changing, all those small changes are going to stack up and turn your cast into something that the readers are no longer familiar and comfortable with.
Now. There’s nothing wrong with this on the face of it. This brings into play the elusive quality of verisimilitude that all writers need to work into their stories. Real people change over time and, if you just check in with them every six months or a year instead of living with them constantly, you’re going to find them weirdly unfamiliar due to the ways they’ve changed and you’ll probably be made a little uncomfortable by this. The rare exceptions to this will be your friends for life but, and let’s face it, those are just as rare as the fiction characters who you will easily connect with at any time and in any place.
So as a general rule the characters that fill long running series tend to slowly warp into something other than the person we got to know. It’s just a part of the format. In fact, if they don’t they actually start to feel flat and unbelievable. But the opposite also poses problems.
The problem with this gradual change is embodied in the relationship between October, or Toby, and her liege lord Sylvester Torquill and his wife, Luna. When Toby first introduces us to these two characters they all have a good relationship, there’s real warmth between them in spite of a kidnapping incident that Toby failed to clear up, mainly because she’d been turned into a goldfish. It’s a long story.
Over time the relationship between them builds up problems. Sylvester and Luna have been keeping secrets from Toby – I’m not sure why this is such a big problem for Toby since the lives of all the characters are built on an interlocking series of secrets they keep from each other and the world at large. Regardless, Toby starts finding things out and wondering why Sylvester has been keeping them from her.
My problem with the way this has fallen out is this.
First, we never really see signs of the falling out between Sylvester and Toby until The Winter Long. We’re told Toby is having more and more questions about Sylvester’s behavior but she never does much to hash it out, at least not that we see. In The Winter Long Toby actually gets a in-her-face suggestion for why Sylvester’s behavior towards her is so favorable – along with another more subtle one she might not have caught. Yet Toby never gives this man, who has been supportive and kind to her since the day they met, the benefit of the doubt.
This is particularly bizarre as Toby has given several of her other friends that benefit, particularly the Luidaeg (don’t as how that’s pronounced), who have been under or are under a series of interlocking agreements and bindings that force them to talk in circles in order to get information across, when they can communicate information at all, or otherwise constrained by their magical nature. Sylvester is very old (McGuire’s fairies don’t age, although they can be killed) and he’s also fairly important in the grand scheme of things, yet Toby never stops to think that decisions he made hundreds of years before she was born might now be tying his hands regarding what he can or cannot tell her.
We don’t know that they do, but it’s very odd that the possibility never even seems to cross Toby’s mind.
Also, Sylvester’s biological daughter was abducted and missing for fourteen years, during which time the poor man was mad with grief. Now she’s a moderately psychopathic person in an induced coma. Sylvester can be excused for being a little over protective and secretive, not that Toby ever acknowledges that. And the relationship between Toby and Luna has been even more neurotic.
It’s like every volume of the series that comes out we find the two ladies on worse footing with little examination of why things are getting worse, other than Toby’s found she doesn’t know Luna as well as she thought. Rather than trying to come to a closer understanding of a person she claims is a friend, Toby avoids Luna and otherwise undermines Luna’s attempts to keep the Torquill family from dissolving under the trauma it’s sustained. And the worst part about this is, the October Daye series is written in the first person. There is literally no other side to the story.
There’s a lot of character arc going on and we’re not getting perspective on it. Maybe part of the point is that Toby finds these characters as strange and alien as we do, but my biggest gripe is she’s not reacting to these changes like she’d react if any other character started to display the same behaviors. She’s taking it very passively, and that’s woefully out of character for a woman who springs into action before reinforcements arrive half the time.
The worst part about it is, it feels like it’s dragging down the series. This really feels like something that needs to get wrapped up promptly, that’s the kind of action we expect from our heroine. But instead it’s just sitting there and casting a shadow over the series. There’s a better than good chance McGuire intends to resolve this at some point in the future but leaving characters that felt so very central to the early portion of the series out in the cold for so long is displeasing.
To summarize: Long running series, especially in the case of books and movies TV series that have to restart at the beginning of each season are actually better at this, have a bad habit of creating character growth in characters in one installment and then not giving the audience time to reacquaint themselves with those characters and where they are in life in the next. This tends to happen more with supporting characters, since they don’t get the same amount of screen time as the central cast, and it results in those once beloved characters turning into something strange and foreign when they do show up. And I’m worried that the treatment of the Torquills in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is going to fall apart as a result of this.
Do I see this as a potential problem? Yeah. Do I have any idea what to do about it? I’ll have to get back to you on that…