On writing a series for 30 years

Posted on | July 15, 2019

I’ve been reading John Yorke’s excellent book on storytelling, Into the Woods. Yorke was a television writer, producer and executive for many years, and his insights into what makes series & serials tick has been invaluable to me in clarifying some of the things I’ve been blocked by in developing out The Journal Entries and my other stories.

Yorke writes:

Why does every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a lifespan of only two or three years? Why do most characters in soaps seem to dissipate over time and find themselves in endlessly similar storylines, becoming paler shadows of their former selves?

Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies— great and glorious lies if told well, but lies nonetheless. As with those we love in real life, we want our ficticious friends to live forever.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience insists they stay exactly the same.

Osvaldo Oyola makes a similar observation in Superior Responsibility: Spider-Man and the Thread of Identity:

If there is one thing we can count on in mainstream superhero comics it is the strange tension between the accretion of change and the status quo. That is, while the status quo tends to draw characters back towards it, undoing the events of intervening issues, the changes back and forth and the inconsistencies they engender become part of that on-going story.

This essential tension, that a character in a long-running serial be similar enough to the reader or watcher to be as recognizable and relatable in episode 300 as she was in episode 1, yet somehow be dramatic and engaging, is the dried pea under Ken Shardik’s hundred-high mattress collection stained with the love fluids of a dozen different species.

I am, as far as I know, an ordinary human being, with the limited time and space on this Earth we are alloted by fate and circumstance. Like all young people, I started out not knowing anything, and had to learn my lessons in all the usual ways, and sometimes in unusual ways. I have ADHD and a very mild form of something called Interictal Syndrome, which is like Asperger’s Syndrome “but not really,” and this manifests in a desire to subject everything to process, to explain everything (a component of interictal syndrome called circumstantiality), and to do so in a safe space.

Shardik was my tool and my Mary Sue for figuring out how people met and learned how to like and love one another. He’s always been that. Somewhere along the way, I realized that that was not enough, and that he needed to codify his— and my— moral core, and that the stories needed to be about something more than just getting laid.

Ken and I grew up and grew older together.

A lot of my stories simply are “processing.” I took a situation I was either in and didn’t understand, or a situation I wanted to be in and didn’t understand, and wrote several different stories where that situation played out. Not all of them were great, and some of them show the immaturity they’re meant to explore and overcome, but that’s kind a the point.

Looking back at them, and applying modern psychoanalysis, I can see how they map to classic maturity models.

The AIs create an environment of trust which must be explained, carefully; it’s not enough to create a science fiction environment in which trust is easy, it must be earned. Writing about that was one major component of the series. My characters must explore the limits of their autonomy within this universe. The highly aware ones question the sincerity of their autonomy, while the immature ones deal with their sense of shame at wanting to question it at all. All of the classic emotional stages are dealt with. I’m kinda proud of that.

But the character of Shardik has changed only a little over time. He came out, as I came out, to all the different things that he is: capable of intimacy rather than banal fuck-aroundedness, queer, kinky, and perpetually champing at the bit to be more than what his limited body and intellect allow, yet also perpetually frustrated that, in his universe, becoming more implies a blurring of identity and his sense of self.

So he stays the same, and acts out his frustration in a number of ways, all the while aware of them, moderating them, and trying to make something positive out of them.

I have ocassionally toyed with trying to come up with a story that breaks Ken without having to threaten his family relationships. Even Petri Dish exists on the presumption that, having embraced a limited form of more-ness, Ken only proceeds knowing that his family back home is taken care of. I do have a story where he snaps under stress, where coincidence overwhelms even his resources and he’s left with nothing but clawing his way back toward the respect of someone he’s recently met and expects more from him than even he has. It’s an interesting story, and I have yet to find a satisfying ending for it.

But this essentially static nature is why there are many more stories featuring other people these days. There are conflicts and traumas Ken can’t get involved with. He’s never been a religious fanatic, he’s never had parents of his own to deal with, he’s cautiously avoided embroiling Pendor in a major casus belli.

The upshot of this is that there aren’t many more stories to tell in the Journal Entries universe, at least not those featuring Shardik and his family. They’re kinda done with this. Wish certainly has a few more stories (she is not a mature and complete person yet) and P’nyssa probably. Aaden not so much; Aaden hit his mature stride even quicker than Ken because, unlike Ken, Aaden knew he had to, to feel comfortable in Ken’s presence.

They’ve had a good run. They’re grown-ups now, with little journeying left to do. Long live the Shardik family. But it will soon be time to let others take— and hold— the stage.

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