Sitcoms are full of them: the goofy neighbor, the recurring customer, the older and suddenly single parent, the bizarro date, the crotchety boss. For decades, those quirky characters have wormed their way into our hearts and wound up with their own shows. Some successful ones have been Rhoda and Lou Grant (the neighbor and boss on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy (both got their start on episodes of Happy Days) Maude and The Jeffersons (Edith’s cousin and the next door neighbors from All in the Family), Frasier (customer from Cheers), Xena, Warrior Princess (from Hercules), The Simpsons (a regular feature on The Tracey Ullman Show) and The Colbert Report (quirky on-air news personality from The Daily Show).
Some less successful ones: The Ropers (the landlords from Three’s Company), Joey (one of the original Friends), AfterM*A*S*H (a few of the secondary characters from M*A*S*H), Joanie Loves Chachi (the less successful follow up to Happy Days), The Lone Gunmen (those conspiracy guys from The X Files), Top of the Heap (featuring a younger Matt LeBlanc, spun off from Married With Children), and Baywatch Nights (the Baywatch followup).
What’s the secret? Often, the quirky character was taken out of the original milieu and tossed elsewhere (Rhoda, Lou Grant, Frasier, The Jeffersons). This allowed the writers to develop new situations, new characters for interaction, and completely totally different storylines. But this same shake-up didn’t work for The Ropers, AfterM*A*S*H or Joey–mainly because the characters didn’t really grow in their new surroundings.
Sometimes it’s about how much the audience can bear. What’s most important is to keep the original idea, but allow the characters room to grow.
The same can be true in writing. Whether it’s recurring characters or a recurring location, after a while, the stories can become stale. I bring this up because I’ve seen several discussions about readers becoming bored with three vastly different series: Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor series, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and J.D. Robb’s In Death series. In Lucky Harbor, readers seem to be tired of the same quirky characters (i.e.: the town’s Facebook page) and the same romance trope for the main characters. With Stephanie Plum, readers are tired of the heroine’s lack of growth both professionally and personally (she still can’t use a gun and still can’t decide between Ranger and Joe). And in In Death, readers hate that Eve always seems to be right from the get-go (she knows who the bad guy is and the story becomes more a police procedural) and the secondary characters (Peabody and Ian, Mavis and Leonardo) never have conflict or an opportunity to grow in their own lives.
Part of series ennui is probably due to the readers’ demand for more, more, more. Faster, faster, faster. Writers cannot write as fast as readers can read. And the demand never stops. Editors often talk writers out of “breaking formula” because the formula’s been working. It’s that New Coke phobia. There have been plenty of authors who’ve done something new and unexpected, only to face reader backlash ranging from poor sales to death threats. Yes, death threats.
What’s a writer to do? My advice? Be true to yourself. Write for you. And buy a big dog. There is no perfect answer. But if you write what you love, no one can take that away from you.
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