Monday, August 8, 2011

Trilogies - Why Do We Finish Reading, or Not?

Image: Covers for The Coldfire Trilogy
As a fan, the answer to this question does not really matter to me.  After all, my reading time is limited, and if I'm not feeling compelled to continue a trilogy I won't.  I don't sit and analyze why I haven't gone out and picked up #2 or #3 yet, it simply does not happen.  There is a host of great speculative fiction out there and I read what grabs me.  I'm not the sort of person who feels compelled to read a third book because I've read the first two.

But as a writer, the answer to this question definitely matters to me.  What is it that keeps a person reading through a trilogy?  What is it that leads a person to stop, even after investing the time of reading the first one or two?

The trilogy that comes to mind as an example is one from a favorite author, C.S. Friedman.  I thought In Conquest Born was a great novel, and I list The Madness Season on my list of top ten sci-fi books.  I'll generally give anything she writes a try without looking at reviews, since I know that her style and content appeal to me. 

Now, every trilogy needs a great first book.  It won't go anywhere without a lead off that makes people want to come back for more.  The formulaic story-in-itself seems to remain powerful.  A book that can stand alone but that also leaves some curious loose ends usually makes for a solid first book.  This naturally creates a challenge for the second book, and again, the formula of 'darker and deeper' usually works.  This would be like The Empire Strikes Back, where the story has our heroes lose over and over yet it leaves the door wide open for a triumphant return.

I picked up Black Sun Rising without knowing it was to be the first part of The Coldfire Trilogy.  I liked it, even though one of the protagonists isn't very likable, himself.  It had an interesting premise, and a new twist on the intersection between fantasy and sci-fi, which is something the author does well.  It followed the pattern of a great novel that could stand alone, but that had some very intriguing loose ends.  I was motivated to get the second book.

There my interest waned.  I was surprised, since again the book followed the pattern of 'darker and deeper' with a character getting killed off and some unhappy events that make a reader desire to see a little justice.  But I never bought the third book.

Sitting back and looking at the reason why, after all this time, I realize that I was truly turned off by said bad-guy protagonist.  There is also a good-guy protagonist, and that was adequate balance in the first book, but not the second.  The bad-guy protagonist is the more interesting character of the two, which is not a surprise, but he is so loathesome in the second book that I could no longer relate to him nor care what happened to him.  Hints are given as to what conflicts will arise in book three, and perhaps even to a change of perspective for bad-guy, but I wasn't sufficiently interested to read and discover how it all turns out.

Now, given the success of the series, I'm assuming my opinion is in the minority.  This was years ago, of course.  Had I started the series recently, perhaps I would have kept on with it.  Still, it interests me as a writer that I chose to stop reading when I did.  I thought the world and premise were interesting.  The trilogy seems to follow established patterns.  It was something about the characters.  Perhaps I have a low tolerance for protagonists that are also antagonists.  One can't write a trilogy that will appeal to each and every reader, after all.

I note that this did not dissuade me from picking up other books by the author.  I will take a look at any new book she has - I recently bought the first of another series.  I'll let you know how it works out for me, in a second post that is 'darker and deeper' than this one.

Image Credit - Covers for the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman, open source promotional image.