My original article (HERE) elicited a good response from many of my readers and I felt that instead of writing a gigantic comment in response to them I would craft another official article regarding the main topic being discussed by them, as it is one close to my heart. Terry Brooks is one of my favourite authors and his novels have really helped shape my perspective of the Fantasy Genre.

The topic started when John (of the kickass blog, Grasping for the Wind) responded to my inclusion of Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist,

The Blade Itself

“I don’t think Brooks and Feist really fall into this category. They have really written a series of trilogies (ok sometimes four books) or stand alone novels that are set in the same world. Some have the same characters, but not always, and new characters are often introduced. Goodkind and Jordan on the other hand have been following the same characters for twelve weary books. Goodkind has finally got it about what Feist and Brooks have done and is calling the last three books in his series a “trilogy” although I’m inclined to think that is just marketing since the same characters are used.

Anyway, I think that is an unfair comparison. We perhaps need to delineate a line between authors who write in same world, and authors who write about the same characters in a linear fashion.

Perhaps how the books are published might be a factor to take into account as well. If I can read three of Feist’s books and feel that the story is over (ie. Riftwar Legacy) is it fair to say he is lengthy series writer? I can read Brook’s Talismans of Shannara without cracking any of his other books and feel I’ve read a good story.”

This is a style of writing that I barely touched upon in my original article, but just so happens to be my favourite style of storytelling. Terry Brooks has written a LOT of Shannara novels. But what keeps me coming back for more, without growing weary of the series, is that he deftly breaks the series up into smaller chunks of trilogies (The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara), 4-novel sets (The Heritage of Shannara) and even standalone novels (The First King of Shannara). This type of story generally revolves around one world created by the author within which many different stories take place, often over a large span of time and with only small factors connecting them to one another.

Often this type of story carries on themes from one set of novels to another. Characters and plot lines are similar in style, structure and pacing from set to set and this can often turn readers off, complaining that the author simply recycles the same story over and over again while adding little new to the formula. How many of Terry Brooks novels contain a young man, not fully aware of his heritage, being whisked away by a Gandalf-like character to save the world, and eventually growing into his/her magic? Pretty much all of them. David Eddings is constantly criticized for essentially writing the same story over and over again, recycling basically everything in his novels each time he comes around.

But, in my opinion, these two authors are on other ends of the spectrum when it comes to recycling their material. Accordign to Wikipedia (in other words, take it with a grain of salt, I don’t have the book to verify the quote), Eddings even has a hard formula (as detailed in The Rivan Codex):

The Rivan Codex by David Eddings

One of the essays within the Rivan Codex lists Eddings’ formula for epic fantasy :

1. The Underlying Theology (Polytheistic/Monotheistic/Buddhist/Other)
2. The Quest
3. The Magic “Thingamajigger” (Holy Grail/One Ring/Magic Sword/Jewel)
4. The Hero: Galahad the Pure, Gawain the Brave, Perceval the Dumb (Naive), or Lancelot the Heavyweight Champion of the World
5. The Resident Wizard (Gandalf, Merlin, Belgarath)
6. The Heroine
7. The Villain (usually with some diabolical agenda)
8. The Companions (generally a multicultural crew who can protect the hero until he is old enough to do the killing himself)
9. The Romantic Interests for 8. Both 8&9 must be well-rounded groups, with individualised personalities and flaws.
10. The kings, queens, emperors, generals, courtiers and such, who make up the governments of the world.

All of Eddings Fantasy novels are based on these 10 premises in one form or another.

It’s obvious that a rigid formula like this is going to lead to a novel that feels exceptionally derivative of not only the authors previous work, but of Fantasy in general. If Eddings doesn’t feel compelled to step out of the story that is familiar to him, then we are always going to get trilogies/series that feel as though they’ve been read before.

Terry Brooks is on the other end of the spectrum. He uses formulas he’s comfortable with, that’s undeniable, but each time he sits down to craft the next Shannara trilogy/novel he takes on a different theme to tackle with his story. His current trilogy, for instance, is his rebuttal to the current situation enveloping the world in regards to terrorism, Iraq, War and how we’re all foolishly killing ourselves. When asked about his new series, The Genesis of Shannara in an interview with The Book Standard, he had this to say:

The Elves of Cintra by Terry Brooks

“When I was asked if I wrote from a political point of view, I used to tell people that I didn’t. In fact, I do—I have a strong political position on almost everything I do. I’ve been writing books about the environment and drug usage and stuff for years, so how could I pretend that I’m not taking a political point of view? My vision for this new series was going to be this: If this world that we’re living in actually follows its thread that it’s currently on and eventually implodes under the weight of its own mistakes, mismanagement and poor decision-making, what would happen? What would be left and how would the world rebuild? And what shape would it take?”

Later in the article he speaks a little on where his inspiration for these issues and themes comes from:

“Most of the ideas I get come from reading newspapers and magazines and op-ed pieces and looking at what’s going on. To me, the best thing about fantasy-writing is that you can take current issues and you can re-plant them or replace them in an imaginary world in different terms and let people take a second look. And it’s amazing how people will read things in a different context entirely and find themselves reexamining how they feel about different issues.”

Using this method of exploring different ideas and themes each time he starts a new trilogy/novel, Brooks manages to keep his readers enthralled and always thinking about the state of the world, while being able to drop back into a familiar setting, with familiar characters and feeling confident that they know how to approach the story being told.

In the comments of the original The (multi-volume) Telling of a Story article, SQT brings up a good reason as to why this formula of smaller, self contained novels/trilogies is so successful with readers:

The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

“Gawd, the never ending series is a dreary thing isn’t it? I don’t mind if an author has many books set in the same world, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. But for goodness sakes, let us have some closure before we all die.”

I think that SQT really hit the nail on the head. The most satisfying aspect of this style of storytelling is that a reader knows that s/he is going to find closure in an acceptable amount of time. Readers generally like this, I know I do. It also helps when trying to approach an author that I’ve never read before. If I know that I only have to commit to one, two or three novels to see the authors ability to tell a complete story, then I am going to be much more likely to give them a chance. Authors such as George R.R. Martin have shown that they can tell a story and end it with skill (Martin wrote many standalone novels before he tackled A Song of Ice and Fire), but other authors tackling the endless series (Goodkind, for instance) are unproven when it comes to tying off a story and bringing a satisfying ending to their readers. It takes no more than three novels by authors like Brooks (his first three novels are effectively standalones), Feist, De Lint, Hobb and Tad Williams to know that they can effectively bring a complete story to the table and end it on a satisfying note.

Shawn Speakman (check out his website, he’s a terrific writer) chimes in on the subject, suggesting a happy medium between the endless-mega-series and the standalone/trilogy format:

“For me, there is no need to have a story that is 12 volumes with dozens and dozens and dozens of characters. I think in a way Steve Erikson is doing it right because each one of his stories deals with a new set of characters for the most part — the story is merely set in the same world. I think that Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist are doing it right as well; they might not be your cup of tea, but they write self-contained trilogies that wrap up the story each time out (ie. if one of them died, fans would not be left hanging). The Drizzt stories are also done in this way.”

Erikson is doing a terrific job of writing novels that are subtly tied together as the story first takes off, but as the series has moved on it is becoming clear that the ties between all the different characters and storylines, which seemed completely separate at first, are converging towards a huge climax near the end of the series. This way he is able to satisfy his readers by varying his storytelling/characters/plot devices/etc… while still moving forward a huge, epic storyline that hovers menacingly over each of the novels he has written thus far.

Over at his blog, John tackles exactly what he thinks differentiates the quality of the Brooksesque storytelling and the Jordanesque storytelling: the characters.

Into a Dark Realm by Raymond E. Feist

“From what I can tell, much of the complaint really derives from readers tiring out from having to read the same old characters. I think that’s why comparisons of Raymond E. Feist and Terry Brooks to Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan are unfair. While Brooks and Feist have a great number of works, they are in fact grouped as stand-alone novels, trilogies or one or two quads. Some characters reappear, but their only real similarity to Jordan or Goodkind is their number of books in the same world.

Let’s make a distinction, while Brooks and Feist write many books in one world they have created, Goodkind and Jordan just can’t seem to let their characters go. Oh, there are repetitions of characters in Feist or Brooks, but each series, as published could be read without the others. I know, I’ve left Feist for ten years, and am now rejoining the world of Midkemia. I didn’t feel any loss at not continuing his books because I knew what I had read was substantially complete.”

This is beneficial because new readers generally won’t feel overwhelmed when entering a series, no matter where they start. Each time a new novel/trilogy rolls around readers, new or old alike, are equal virgin’s in regards to most of the main characters. Working from a clean slate like this allows the authors a lot more flexibility in the type of story they are able to tell. Authors like Jordan and Goodkind are limited to the reactions dictated by the characters they’ve spend thousands of pages creating and are only allowed to work within the bounds of those characters.

Of course Brooks and Feist do bring back some characters from older novels, but they are always allowed to interact with the new characters, bringing out different aspects of their character as they get acclimated to the new story and people surrounding them.

Some newer authors adopting this style of storytelling include Joe Abercrombie and Tobias Buckell. Abercrombie just finished writing the concluding volume of his first trilogy and is currently beginning work on the first of two standalone novels, Best Served Cold set in the same world as his trilogy. Buckell works on an even smaller scale, writing standalones (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose) set on different worlds in the same universe. Both of these series promise to be easy to pick up no matter where someone starts. In fact, it seems as though many people are getting into Buckell through his second novel, Ragamuffin and then moving on to his first, Crystal Rain. That’s not something that can be said of most novelists.