Series short story characters have a long history in sf/f. And you’ll note that I do say series characters rather than just “series” as such. Almost all story cycles are built on one or two recurring characters, not a recurring setting. Yes, there are exceptions (HPL, anyone?). There always are. But they needn’t concern us here. In general, the character is the key. Sometimes more than one, but always at least one: The Traveler in Black. Cugel the Clever. Lord D’Arcy. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Readers like them for lots of reasons. Familiarity, the chance to plunge once more into another world and visit there. Sometimes they just wonder what the characters have been up to, the way you want to touch base with an old friend. Or maybe there’s a consistent tone and worldview within that the reader finds appealing. As I said, lots of reasons.
So what are the reasons for writing them? One advantage is that you don’t have to build a new world every time you want to tell a story. Another relates to above, since one of the reasons we do this is to make contact with readers. Storytellers need an audience, large or small, but they need it. Series tend to build readerships over time and in the right circumstances. It’s even possible to play to an audience of one (yourself) if that’s the way the ball bounces, but even that doesn’t change the dynamic by a lot. Good reasons, so does that explain why the series exists?
Not so far as I’m concerned. In fact, except for the desire to connect to an audience, any advantages in the form are completely irrelevant. I’ve written four series in my time. One was about a witch named Taleera, mostly done while I was a beginner and thus consigned to immediate oblivion, though one of her stories became my first pro sale. Another was about a sorceress named Mara. Two of her stories ran in Dragon Magazine, back before the dark days of Wizards of the Coast, and two more in Realms of Fantasy. That one turned into a novel series, beginning with Black Kath’s Daughter, and I’m working on the sequel now. There’s also the Eli Mothersbaugh series and the most recent, the Goji Yamada series set in Heian Japan. But all of them, from early to recent, share one common characteristic—I never planned them as series. When I wrote the first Eli Mothersbaugh story, “Wrecks,” back in 1996, I didn’t know it was a series. I liked the story, I thought the character worked very well, but it never occurred to me that I wasn’t done with him until suddenly there was “The God of Children” demanding to be written. I will say that, even when I was writing the first of the Goji Yamada stories, “Fox Tails,” I knew it would be a series. I just didn’t plan it as a series. No plan, just a recognition of the fact.
Ok, fine, enough of the “and then I wrote” ego massaging. There was another point to it, I promise. Not the “series as art rather than merely craft” hoo-ha, but that there is a reason that I didn’t plan them as series, other than my own working habits. The fact is that there can also be many reasons not to write a series, especially at short story length. I’d even go so far to say that, in the current short fiction market, setting a story in a series or beginning a new one is not necessarily a smart thing to do.
One advantage often touted for the series is that they tend to build readerships, because someone who finds one story they like may look for the others as well. And that’s fine, assuming they can find them outside of a collection. One advantage that earlier series in the field had was more of a consistency of venue. Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, etc., often provided a stable home environment, so to speak, to a particular series. Fer instance, if you wanted to read a new Fafhrd & Mouser or Esterhazy story in the 1960s or ’70s you generally knew where you had to go to have a chance of finding one. But what happens if, as now, the field is so fragmented that this simply isn’t possible? I certainly was never able to manage a consistent venue with the Eli Mothersbaugh stories; they’ve appeared everywhere from a short-lived British magazine (Odyssey) to anthologies (Haunted Holidays). Even readers who’d be interested generally don’t know where to look for them. I came closest with the Yamada series that began in Realms of Fantasy, but these days you’d have to know to go to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to find them. You always to have to assume that any reader coming to the series comes in as a complete virgin, so to speak. There has to be a certain amount of hand-holding which will bore longer-term readers to tears. Yes, I know series novel authors have the same problem, but then they have more words to work with. 5000 words becomes a lot less when you’re constantly worried about backstory.
There are, indeed, many good reasons to write a series. At novel length it’s almost a requirement, if you want to have a career. At short story length? Not so much. Maybe the series will find its audience, maybe not. The only real reason to do it in that instance is because series are just fun. I plan to write more Yamada stories mainly because I want to know what he’s going to do next. When that curiousity ends, so does the series. I can’t be sure it’s found its audience, but at least that way I know he’ll never overstay his welcome.