Jan 26 2010

Discussion: story-hopping characters

Published by at 12:11 pm under characterization,Writing

In contemplating various areas surrounding the creation of a series character (instead of one that exists within the pages of a single story), we end up having some fairly interesting discussions here at the Dream Café.  One of the most recent conversations involved an observed trend among a few of the writers we enjoy reading, that of creating a character in one story that then appears in an otherwise unrelated story later on.  (Note that this is subtly different from the concept of a character having more than one series of stories.)

We came up with several examples which I’ll discuss, but I encourage anyone reading to mention their own examples in the comments of anything we didn’t cover here.  Nathan suggested that the intersection of Isaac Asimov’s Robot and Empire series (referenced vaguely to avoid spoilers) is one example of this story-hopping idea.  I think that Dean Koontz comes close to this in his Christopher Snow series, which is set in the same world of, and references some of the events that happen in, his previous novel Watchers.  (To my knowledge there is no actual character overlap between the two, but I admit I haven’t read all of the Snow novels.)

Nathan also suggested the “Fizban the Fabulous/Paladine” character from the Dragonlance series, where a clumsy-but-likable wizard also happens to be a major lawful good deity.  Heinlein has some interesting character and story intersections when he introduces the food-processor-effect of the “World as Myth” concept.

The character Enoch Root from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon is a closer reflection of the story-hopping character, with Root possessing an elixir of life that allows him to resurrect and be present in different times and places.  Root influences other characters around him toward actions of importance on surrounding events, as well as resurrecting a couple of other characters with his elixir.

A well-documented and analyzed example is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg.  He appears in nine novels, including The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, and the Dark Tower series.  While in those series he plays a major antagonist, and more minor roles in other appearances, his role as a sower of chaos, dissension, and destruction remains a constant theme.  The character doesn’t always keep the same name but often (though not always) will use the initials R.F.

For a third and yet again different take from Stephenson and King on the story-hopping character idea, we can look at Devera from Steven Brust’s body of work.  Devera appears in every published Brust novel, both the series and the stand-alone novels.  She is always a secondary character, a reality-walker with a very fluid definition of time, and usually appears as a brown-eyed pre-pubescent girl.  In several novels the mention of her is obscure or vague, while in others she has a more active though still secondary role.  However, the most active role she takes in the novels (The Phoenix Guards, Taltos) is that of a messenger, passing information along at a key plot point.  The rest of the time she seems more an observer than an active player.

It seems like it would be difficult to have a recurring character, especially in unrelated stories, and not have that “grow old” for the reader after a while.  While I think the ones I’ve mentioned do a better job of retaining interest in seeing the character show up again (especially Devera) I also recognize that is at least in part a subjective assessment, so opinions on the success of interest retention may vary.  What do you think?  I know the idea of a story-hopping character delights me in theory, but actually doing so with ongoing viability seems a daunting reality.  What are some other examples of this or something similar that you’ve encountered?  I stuck with literary examples here but you can feel free to branch out into other media.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Discussion: story-hopping characters”

  1. Andreaon 26 Jan 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I’m having that odd mental feeling of having something right on the tip of my tongue err brain … but darn if I can pull it forth. I know I know some examples of this and it always fills me with “in the club” glee when I notice/figure it out, but I just can’t call them to mind right now. I blame the business plan.

  2. Nathaniel Elioton 26 Jan 2010 at 1:24 pm

    The “same-world” series hoppers seem to be the shallow end of this trope; while in some cases the work done to combine the seires is impressive, in the end they require much less explanation. The deep end is most often visited by comic books, though Heinlein’s World-As-Myth also lies there; the heavy-handed explanations for the crossovers therearen’t quite as fun, for me, as characters like Flagg and Devera.

    Fizban is a particularly annoying instance of this trope, showing up as Zanfib in the Deathgate Cycle by the same authors, whose explanations for why he isn’t actually the same character are tortured, at best.

    A related trope is the borrowed character, taken from public domain works, or used without permission for fanfic. Characters like Dracula, Merlin, and Robin Hood tend to reappear in more mythic fiction, though often reinterpreted in some way. The deep end there is what TV Tropes calls the deconstruction crossover; probably the best known example is “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, which includes Mina Harker from Dracula, Jeckel/Hyde, the Invisible Man, and more.

  3. Reesaon 28 Jan 2010 at 5:49 pm

    @Andrea – I think there were more that I “should have” thought of but didn’t, so I understand the feeling.

    @Nathan – thanks for the elaboration on Bifnaz or whoever he was. I like our talks about the different patterns we find in story! Might have to do a larger post at some point about crossover characters and deconstruction crossover, fun stuff.