“Hey lady! Strong bridge!” 

Short Round was way politically incorrect, but he was right about one thing. The bridge was strong, at least until Dr. Jones decided to take a machete to it.  And the Indiana Jones series has been strong enough to withstand some seriously horrible writing in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They’re still talking about making another one. I just hope they shove Shia LaBoeuf into the fridge this time around and leave it somewhere no one would think to look, like in the Jar-Jar memorabilia storage closet at Skywalker Ranch. But you can’t deny that the Indiana Jones series is a strong concept, with strong execution, at least in the first few entries.

Some of my favorite writing is serial writing. I love Sherlock Holmes, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I have about half of all the Iron Man comics ever published. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what makes a good serial, because I’m researching e-book publishing. It’s pretty well established that writing in serial form will help you build an audience. When people read one book about a character they love, they also love to hear that there’s another book with that same character, or set of characters doing even more wonderful things. Harry Potter wouldn’t have blown up the way it did if Harry permanently did away with Voldemort in Sorceror’s Stone, and had then gone on to have an otherwise unremarkable scholastic career at Hogwarts. The next two books solidified Harry as a hero, and cemented his friends as the stalwart compatriots we love. We want to see what happens next, and we come back again to find out more.

Writing the next Harry Potter is probably not the most worthy (or possible) of goals. Such a lightning bolt is full of chance and luck, and there are tons of worthy books with characters more rich than Harry and his friends that will never reach those heights of poplarity. The more important goal I think, is to write a character that you personally want to follow, and a character who connects with people. Toward that end, let’s take a look at some of my favorites and figure out why each works in serial form.

Sherlock Holmesgenius, misanthrope, possible sociopath, loyal friend, brilliant detective, enigmatic

Holmes is perhaps the ultimate serial character. He’s the gold standard and has survived in numerous forms for over 125 years. He has served as the inspiration for a ton of other serial characters, and it’s not hard to find a mystery series that doesn’t owe a debt to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The thing I find interesting about Holmes is that on his own he might not work. A story told from the point of view of Holmes might come off as dry, clinical, and somewhat heartless. Holmes needs John Watson to soften his edges. Watson is our way in, and he’s the window through which we see Holmes’ genius. Holmes does things that seem cold and calculating, but through the eyes of Watson we are able to understand why. And through Holmes’ loyalty to Watson, we are able to see that which Holmes might not even admit to himself. It is through Watson that we are allowed into the mind of a master, and it is through Watson’s love for Holmes that we are given one of our most enduring heroes.

Tony Stark – genius, billionaire, philanthropist, alcoholic, weapons manufacturer, superhero, Iron Man

Superheroes in comics are almost a different animal altogether. To separate the serial aspect from the superhero story is almost impossible. But there are superheroes who endure, and then there’s Darkhawk. Don’t get me wrong, I like Darkhawk, but an alien amulet-wearing android isn’t exactly going to grab fans by the lapels. Tony Stark does grab you by the lapels and tells you, “I’m a real person who built his fortune eight times over, and hey, I also built this nifty suit of armor that lets me fly and fight crime.” Iron Man’s  longevity is due, in part, to his relatability. Sure, he’s a billionaire, and he’s smarter than you or I could ever hope to be, and he can fly. But he’s also an alcoholic and a womanizer, so he’s not perfect. But, as with Holmes, he’s a loyal friend, and ally, and when put in a tight spot, he’s going to find a way to save the world over and over again. And in Tony’s case, we don’t absolutely need a Dr. Watson to tell a good Iron Man story. But the best ones have Watson-esque characters too. Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, and Bethany Cabe all serve the purpose of showing the human side of Tony Stark to great effect, and bringing the audience into his stories. 

Arthur Dentshlub, wearer of tatty dressing gowns, man without a planet, intergalactic hitchhiker

When Ford Prefect convinces Arthur Dent to join him for a pint instead of lying in front of a bulldozer to protect his home, we are thrust into the story along with poor Arthur. Arthur is both the Watson of the story, and its hero, which is another avenue. The reason it works here is because in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, everyone Arthur meets is so fantastic, that we need an anchor. We need our hero to be a regular guy. He needs to look around in wonder and befuddlement at the insanity around him, so that we have a way in. Just as with Watson providing our window to Holmes’ genius, here we need a window to an entire universe that is outside our scope. But in the end a window isn’t enough. In order for it to work, we also need someone to root for. And Arthur has nowhere to go but up. So, when he learns to fly, we cheer, and when he finally gets the girl we pray he doesn’t screw it up.

I’m going to stop at three for now, but I’m going to be spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about this, and so I hope you’ll chime in with your favorite serial characters, and why you think they work so well. Why do you keep coming back for more?

photo credit: Eric Molina – creative commons license

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