One of the most wonderful things about books in a series is that the characters’ stories don’t have to end after just three, four, five or six hundred or so pages. By writing a series, the author can continue our beloved characters’ stories beyond those few hundred pages, extending our time with them for years and sometimes decades.
As readers, we become invested in these characters’ futures. And their stories become intertwined with our own.
Sometimes we even grow up alongside a character we love. Touching base with them each year, seeing them age as we do. Sometimes we follow them on a long and arduous journey that doesn’t end happily, but one we were happy to take if only just to be there with them.
These stories we follow to their happy, bittersweet or sorrowful ends. We shed tears when we finally have to say goodbye to the world we felt was a second home and to characters we felt were good friends. Saying goodbye can leave us feeling empty. It can leave us heartbroken. It can leave us feeling abandoned.
Because we weren’t ready to say goodbye. We felt there was so much more story to tell. The magic still held us captive and we always hoped for more.
But sometimes we find that the character gets lost somewhere along the way. Their story gets muddled. Our interest in them wanes. Sometimes we discover that the magic is gone. And it breaks our hearts nearly as much as having to say goodbye before we’re ready. Sometimes even more so.
It’s a difficult balance for writer, reader and publisher. If the series ends too soon, readers are left disappointed, possibly less willing to take a chance the next time on a new series by the author. Less willing to connect to the new characters and less willing to invest their time and a piece of themselves into the story. Always fearing that the story will be cut short and they’ll be left wanting.
If the series carries on too long, readers will also be disappointed. And possibly angry. Their love for the story will turn to disinterest or even hatred. Their love for the author can turn to confusion about the author’s motives for keeping a story alive long past its natural end.
So, it’s a fine line. And one that can’t always be predicted.
Would the Harry Potter series have continued in its success and remained as popular if it hadn’t stopped after book seven? If readers continued on with Harry, Ron and Hermione year after year, would they still adore them as much as they did, once the series reached its end? While there are many readers who may have wanted more, the question is how much more? How many more books in that series would it have taken for the magic to die? How long before readers would start to shout, “End it already!”? How long before it would start to feel like a money grab?
When an author still feels passionately about their characters, readers can typically tell. It comes through in the writing. Whether they love the direction a story has taken or not, they can see that there is a story left to tell. They can feel that spark that made them fall in love with the story in the first place. They can trust that the story will keep them engaged.
But when the story runs its course long before a series has ended, the characters have lost that special something that made them endearing, charming, fun or lovable or the author’s interest in their characters and story has faded, readers will feel not only disenchanted, but often angry. Especially when that conclusion they so hoped to see was right around the corner turns out to be miles down the road instead. Or even worse, when there’s no end in sight.
They’ll be left questioning what the author did to their favorite characters and why. They’ll be angry that the resolution they’ve been hoping for book after book, year after year, is delayed even longer. They’ll tire of the characters and plot and wish they never met them in the first place.
And they may decide to never put their trust in that author again.
Finding the balance is tricky. A best-selling series is tough to walk away from for an author or publisher. For publishers, without profiting from the big moneymakers there is less opportunity to take a chance on a new, untested author. For as much as writing is a creative endeavor it is very much a business. And without having a few “sure things” in their pocket, taking risks on an unknown entity can be a gamble that’s just not worth it.
But squeezing every last dollar possible out of a best-selling series, to the point where the fan-base has fallen to the lowest of levels, can taint the author’s image in a way that is irreparable. And while bad press is still press, when a once highly touted author becomes the subject of derision, it has the potential to affect future sales levels.
For an author it’s just as tricky a balance. Possibly even more so. Whether they are a first-time author or a seasoned one, their relationship with their publisher is important. If the publisher sees an opportunity, standing up to them and putting their creative foot down can be tough. Especially when each book is highly lucrative.
And so, they’re faced with the difficult decision of having to choose between professional relationships, pocketbook, fans and loyalty to their characters and story. Because compromise doesn’t always work. And no matter what, not everyone will be happy with whatever decision is made.
But for readers, nothing can be more frustrating than following their much loved characters on a journey far longer than they ever should have been on. And nothing can feel more disheartening than finding themselves clinging to the barest of threads, hoping the magic returns, wishing the author would put their characters out of their misery. And longing for the chance to have said goodbye too soon instead of being forced to walk away.
While there is no set number, be it three books or thirteen, staying too long at the party or dipping into the coffers once to often, can turn a favorite series into a least favorite series. And it can turn fans into detractors.
For when they feel that all the magic has gone and all that’s left is the money, their loyalty, love and trust will go too. And that is the saddest ending of them all.