Writing a Series
With mentions of the Vorkosigan Saga
by Lois McMaster Bujold
I have recently been sucked into the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I can only warmly recommend. I haven’t binge-read an author, or been so immersed in a series, in a long time. I even used a reading guide to be sure I was picking up the books in the right order. As a writer, I immediately started wondering why I loved this series so much. Why do some books speak to your soul? And, especially, why do some series – which are harder to pull off than a standalone – work so well?
Firstly, Bujold’s world feels full. Her secondary characters make the world feel lived-in. They are essential, not only to scaffold the story with people to hand the MC their lines, (or die at convenient moments for the MC’s personal growth), but as an inherent part of worldbuilding, of making the fictional story more vibrant and tangible. Bujold makes me believe her secondary characters live, die, dream, hate – are human – outside of the MC’s main plotline.
Secondary characters complete their own arcs, sometimes through several books. For example, a character called Count Vorhalas is traumatised by the death of his son in Barrayar, who is executed for duelling. This has repercussions on the MC’s life, Cordelia. In the next book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, this plotline is picked up again, this time from the POV of Miles, Cordelia’s son, who is 17 at the time. Count Vorhalas is still upset, and he tries to use Miles to get to his parents. From Miles’s POV, this isn’t an old friend turned enemy – this is a long-standing rivalry, still unresolved. A form of closure is reached.
In A Civil Campaign, Vorhalas is mentioned again, this time when Miles is 30. Time has passed. It’s understood Vorhalas, a conservative in the political factions warring on the planet, expects people to always play by
the rules, never reverting to duels or physical violence, because that’s how he behaved – never breaking the law, even after his son’s death. This moral fibre also serves the plot, this time in Miles’s favour.
So the same character has experienced growth and changed, but always as a background plotline. He only appears in three out of eleven books covering that time-period. But each time he does, it’s clear he’s going on with his life, whatever the MC is doing.
This is true, not only for secondary characters, but anything within the series which exists in the background: armour and weapons, reproductive technology, planets, places. All of these exist, and keep being referred to, and keep changing, as the story progresses. Having read about nerve-disruptor guns, I was then curious when a fake version of nerve-disruptor armour appeared, at a stage where that technology was not available. Later, I was pleased to find out that nerve-disruptor armour had become real and could be worn in combat. The world felt richer because it was changing, at a slow pace, following its natural arc.
This is the second advantage of series which Bujold exploits well: call-backs. There is something very satisfying about having spent time and energy in one story, and having it referred to in another book. Having read about Koudelka and Drou getting together in Barrayar, I immensely enjoyed meeting them as an old married couple with four daughters. In A Civil Campaign, the characters go so far as to refer to the sofa where they first made out. It’s a pleasure to recognise the characters, remember their past romances or conflicts, and pick up on the in-jokes.
This links to my next point: pay-off. Linked events, which are set up in one book and, if not resolved, then at least serve a purpose in a different book, mean we get pay-off for plotlines we were invested in. As long as no storylines are left hanging, if they are picked up again later, we get a sense of the story being earned.
This is more than a casual call-back to an old love affair – this is when, for example, after Miles grieves a traumatic death in Borders of Infinity, he gets to talk about it and move on from his grief in Komarr. Even better, when he talks about the event – which boils down to him believing that, if he’d been faster, the person would have survived, although he belatedly realises it probably just means both of them would have died – that lesson learned serves the other POV character he’s talking to, and helps her resolve her own troubles. The scene serves both the novella it comes from, and the novel in which it’s a metaphor for other decisions. Both stories work independently, but together, they are enriched.
All of those elements are unique to series, I believe, or at least cannot be done in one book on quite the same scale. Bujold doesn’t only write successful books (which is hard enough!) but she manages to make sure her format – the series – also serves her writing.
Last but not least, I think the reason I enjoy Bujold so much is because she asks hard questions. She doesn’t offer easy answers, but she does have kind, benevolent characters. She also has characters who can be sexist, arrogant, stupid, dangerous, violent. She always takes the time to explain where they come from, and how they might be changed, or forgiven. One example is Bothari, a character who is a military man, with mental health issues and forms of PTSD, for whom we have a lot of sympathy. He is also a rapist. The story doesn’t shy away from the fact, nor from the reasons it happened – Bujold doesn’t give excuses for his behaviour, only its causes. She doesn’t ask the reader to forgive him. Some characters do, some don’t.
Other characters, to lesser degrees, are enriched by how complicated they are – what do we do with Koudelka, who is a kind man, suffering from a physical disability which means he’s isolated by his peers, but who is also, because of his cultural background, misogynistic? Do we forgive him his sexism? Does he learn, does he become better – and if so, how? If he does, do we forgive him later?
The result is imperfect, deeply human people, who sometimes mess up in spectacular ways. And although Bujold doesn’t give them leeway to be stupid, although she does challenge them, she also always includes kind characters. People who have honour, who are empathetic, who defend progressive ideas, who are invested in helping others grow. Her endings are, as far as I can tell, nearly always positive. This helps us through the tougher moments, holds our hand, promises us that if, like her characters, we are resilient, we are brave, we are kind, we will get to find our happy ending on the other side.
In conclusion, I think I love Bujold because she writes what I wish I wrote: tough questions, empathy, no easy answers but space to move forward. She masters the format of the series beautifully, by relying on a wealth of secondary characters, an evolving worldbuilding which changes as the characters do, call-backs, and long-term pay-offs over several books.
One question remains: how on earth did Bujold manage such a feat without writing her books in chronological order?
28 Apr. 2023