Although I write stand-alone novels, I have spent a great deal of my life enthralled by various ongoing fictional relationships, whether in books or on television. There’s something uniquely addictive about watching a relationship unfold over multiple installments, instead of in one big gulp.
Is this because it mimics real life, where two people meet and might have to dance around each other for quite some time before they realize they belong together? Or is it because there’s a sense, when you see characters over multiple installments, that you are actually getting to know them the way you get to know real people?
Of course, it’s a very one-sided relationship. They don’t have a clue about you. But that makes it incredibly easy. There they are in your life, at regular intervals, consistently entertaining you. Meanwhile, you can wear sweatpants and never worry about whether the house is clean or you have spinach in your teeth. Nor do you need to worry whether they have anger issues, designs on your checking account, sexually transmitted diseases, or a deep-seated desire to axe you in your sleep.
So fictional characters are safe, you think … at least until you notice you’ve turned into the reader/viewer equivalent of a crack whore.
The risk is much higher today, especially with streaming services that make entire series available on demand. If it weren’t for my absolute refusal to turn on the television before 6pm, I could lose entire days! As it is, I still sometimes lose entire evenings.
For years now I have actively avoided TV shows when I hear people talk about them as addictive. I avoided Lost. I avoided Bones and House and Breaking Bad.
When I was a kid a show would be on once a week. At most, once a day. There were only five channels on the television, but I found plenty to suck me in. I shipped for Fess Parker’s luscious Daniel Boone and his wife, and John and Victoria on High Chaparral. I also had a thing for Barnabas Collins and Victoria Winters.
As a teenager, I went gaga for Spock. Not that he was particularly great for shipping, unless the friendship between Spock and Kirk counted. But I suppose it did for me, even though I never saw that crossing over into what shippers call slash (i.e. Kirk/Spock – K/S, for short.)
In high school, my friends and I went mad for Ross and Demelza. (Poldark is being remade now and I’m glad — Winston Graham’s fine saga deserves another round of popularity.) My friend Julie and I devoured the books and used to reenact favorite scenes with a tape recorder.
Another fictional series I got interested in after a television miniseries was Conrad Richter’s The Awakening Land trilogy The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. Sayward and Portius were wonderful, and I swallowed those three books like candy. It wasn’t TV, but possibly just great cover art that led me to another addictive trilogy, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter novels. And if I hadn’t been so fond of Aragorn and Arwen, I doubt I would have plowed through The Lord of the Rings as fast as I did. (This was decades before Viggo Mortensen made Aragorn way cuter than he is in the books.)
A religious friend recommended Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries as good writing with Christian themes back when I was first exploring Christianity. I don’t think he had any idea how compelling I would find Lord Peter Wimsey, especially his eventual relationship with Harriet Vane. Star Trek had launched me into reading science fiction and fantasy, and these books got me started reading mysteries – but only if they have strong romantic threads. I still consider the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet one of the most satisfying fictional relationships I’ve ever read. It could not have been as rewarding if it had all happened in one novel.
In the world of television around this time, I got addicted to silly Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along I shipped passionately for Picard and Crusher from the very first episode. That passion inspired a long correspondence with TNG’s producer, the lovely Jeri Taylor, which eventually allowed me to do amazing Trekkie things like tour the sets and eat in the Paramount commissary. I even sold an (uncredited) story idea to Star Trek: Voyager, where I dutifully shipped a little for Janeway and Chakotay before I finally lost interest. If I hadn’t been married, with a full-time job and a baby, I might have tried to parlay that initial sale into an actual television writing career, but I knew how all-consuming that that kind of work was, so I didn’t.
My mother got me addicted to The X-Files and Mulder and Scully. I loved those two, but that show eventually annoyed me so profoundly that I also started writing and publishing fanfic for it – something made so much easier by the new Internet than it had been before.
Another fictional couple caught me in their grip about that time, because while I was writing The Awful Mess I was keeping my eyes open for fiction featuring Episcopal priests. The Rev. Clare Fergussen and Russ Van Alstyne of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries can still cause me to drop everything for the next installment.
My Star Trek genes re-activated yet again when I discovered Star Trek: Enterprise, which I’d missed when it was actually on the air because I had a kid to put to bed and no time to chase down its weird movements on the TV schedule. (Jeri had moved on by then.) It was uneven, like all the Treks, but I loved that crew and Trip Tucker and T’Pol in particular. Like the original series, it ended far too soon. I wanted more.
And so I wrote more. A lot more. I have put Trip and T’Pol together in scene after scene after scene (and yeah, occasionally the other characters, too). I recently totaled my fanfic.net output: 522,274 words. That’s at least five or six novels right there.
On one level, this was absurd. Star Trek is a very recognizable universe, so I can’t just tweak my stuff and try to sell it the way 50 Shades of Gray was sold. (That started out as Twilight fanfic.) I should have put all that energy into work I could actually make some money from someday, even though I’d had a lot of nibbles but no bites from an agent. But, honestly? Fanfic kept my writer’s ego alive through all those rejections.
It was also great training. I got the discipline of writing regularly, the tougher feedback that comes from sharp writing pals, a chance to experiment, and an opportunity to roll with reviews and reviewers that were mostly kind, but definitely not always so.
Today, I’m not really addicted to any TV couple. I used to religiously watch the stylish Castle (though I never bothered with repeats), but Kate Beckett went gaga over a wedding dress a year or two ago and I haven’t watched it since. Defiance is entertaining, but I’m willing to simply watch it unfold. House of Cards has addictive qualities, but who can ship those awful people?
Readers sometimes tell me they’d like to see more of Mary and Winslow from The Awful Mess. I have written a (recently much expanded) prequel I’m about to make available to members of my mailing list, but I kind of hate to do anything else to those two. (Didn’t they already suffer enough to get to their happy ending?) As for Molly and David in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, I think I left them where they needed to be left.
Right now I’m in the midst of turmoil with another couple in Bardwell’s Folly, but I don’t expect to stay with them for more than one novel, either. (If you want to read the first two chapters of that before anyone else does, do make sure you sign up for my mailing list.) And then I have a play to write, and then another stand-alone novel in mind.
But after that, or possibly even before that, I’m beginning to wonder whether coming up with a series of some kind might not be a good idea. It would give me a chance to play with a long relationship over multiple installments. And it might give me a writing income closer to the income of your typical low-level drug dealer, as opposed to your typical starving novelist.
Except… to stretch out a romance over multiple installments, there has to be an A plot that leaves the reader feeling some sense of satisfaction at the end of each episode (or book). Otherwise, they’re likely to feel cruelly tortured by egregious cliff hangers and unresolved sexual tension stretched out beyond all reason. (Cue X-Files theme music.)
Perhaps that is why so many great couples come from genre fiction — historical sagas, Westerns, vampire tales, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Yes, people are falling in love, but their number one job is usually something more pressing, like finding murderers, saving the universe, or fighting off the bad guys. Just plain old romance over multiple volumes tends to devolve into soap opera. (Cue Downton Abbey.)
Do series even exist in women’s or literary fiction? I suppose Jan Karon’s Mitford novels do this — Father Tim and Cynthia take a long time to come together while the various problems of the people of Mitford get charmingly presented and resolved. (An agent once won my heart by telling me The Awful Mess was like the Mitford novels, “only better.” He still didn’t think he could sell it, though.) There are probably others, but I can’t think of any. Can you?
Who are your favorite ongoing fictional couples? Who’s your crack?