Last week I started talking about series, and how they can go wrong. Today I'd like to continue the discussion with something a little more fun - that is, how series can go right.
As you might be able to tell by last week's list of "where series go wrong," I was recently deeply disappointed with a series that ended badly, and I was specifically thinking about how it might have been salvaged - how someone, somewhere, might have been able to make it right by doing something short of rewriting the whole dang ending.
There's no such thing as a perfect series, mind you, but I'll site some specific examples of series that did specific things very well. Note that not all of these things can be done in the same series (not that I'm aware of anyway; I might be wrong) but these are things that can be done very well.
My first example is the worldbuilding in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The world is introduced at first as very simplistic - there are four nations, one of them is conquering everything, and only one kid can save the world! As the series progresses through its various seasons, we're introduced slowly to more and more nuances of the world. The Air Nomads and how they related to the other nations. The sprawling expanse of the Earth Kingdom and how the culture is so different from the edges to the center. The Water Tribes, and how they've become divided as the years passed. And of course, the industrial and economic boom of the Fire Nation, fueled by the engines of war in ways we can see mirrored in our own history.
I think in part, it's the parallels we can draw to our own history that make this world so believable. It makes sense that these groups act and are this way because there are groups in our own world who have done the same thing. There's a careful balance to this, though. If I may say so - both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Disney use varying ethnic groups to make different areas feel and appear different to the audience, but Disney's ethnic groups tend to be very Planet of Hats-y because instead of drawing on the parallels to make the world feel believable, they use the parallels as a crutch to avoid actual worlbuilding, instead focusing on the story they want to tell. (Note: This is a legitimate choice. I just think their stories would be stronger if the worlds were actually worldbuilt, rather than vaguely implied.)
My second example will be from Harry Potter. Regardless of the other flaws that might or might not be present in the series according to your judgement or mine, I have always been very impressed with the consistent and believable development of the characters throughout the series. There are few points at which I feel this or that character behaved in a way that made no sense according to what we'd known of them in the past. Neville's development from a hopeless scaredy-cat and an untalented wizard to a brave and resourceful member of the main cast was gradual, and happened in such a way that I didn't roll my eyes sarcastically and think about how he was magically better at everything after one training montage. In fact, none of the characters had that magical training montage moment, where suddenly everything about them has improved. In this series, it was always clear what area of their skill or personality was being changed, whether for the better or for the worse, and while the often influenced other aspects of their behavior, there was never a universal improvement or degradation of their character as a whole.
That consistent application of small changes was something I appreciated, in addition to the gradual nature of the changes that took place. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I really do value consistency in all things - in character development, in worldbuilding, and of course in our next area as well.
My third and final example is one near and dear to my heart - Redwall. This series is 22 books long, and started in 1986 with the book titled (unsurprisingly) Redwall. As with The Chronicles of Narnia, though, the first book to be published is not now considered the first book in the series, as chronologically, it comes 9th in order according to the characters inside the stories. But one thing you'll notice if you read the books is that relatively few of them rely on one another for character introductions or worldbuilding. Each book can stand on its own as a self-contained story, though some are better at this than others.
And that's what's always impressed me about these books. Through a series that's so very long and interesting and varied in the stories it tells, the author has been careful to ensure that whether a reader picks up the first book or the fifteenth, he can trust that the story that starts on the first page will conclude on the last page. He can also trust there's more to the story and there are many more books in the series, but the very fact that the story doesn't continue from one book to the next to the next to the next means that you can stop at any time, and it won't just stop making sense.
These self-contained stories are not easy to write, as I know all too well, and it's tempting to continue the story that you supposedly finished in the last installment, not only because it's easy but also because it's satisfying to see more of those characters you spent so long developing.
So there are my examples. What do you think makes a good series? Do you have any examples for me?