One of the reason I enjoy writing standalone novels is that it allows me to tell stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end. Series fiction is, almost universally, stuck in the second act by its very nature.
ACT ONE: Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, gains superpowers, learns a lesson on personal responsibility.
ACT TWO: Spider-Man struggles to fight crime and redeem himself in his own eyes and the eyes of the city he defends.
ACT THREE: Spider-Man learns to balance his obligations as both a superhero and an ordinary man, gets married, has some kids, stops being such a sadsack.
Yes, it’s that Act Three that’s the problem. It NEVER happens. It was never intended to happen. Spider-Man is stuck in that second act, and he will never actually get out of it. This is why he’ll never have a successful marriage (even when married to his beautiful dreamgirl who is both understanding and a supermodel), he’ll always be an outcast (even while a prominent member of The Avengers, his world’s preeminent superhero team), and why he’ll always be broke (did I mention his wife was a successful supermodel?), and always ALWAYS debating whether or not he should even be Spider-Man in the first place (regardless of how many times he has saved New York and the world).
None of that is actually a big deal at first, but eventually, after decades of Spidey stories, it can seem a bit redundant. Taken as a collection of continuity, we end up with a Peter Parker who keeps learning over and over again that he needs to get his act together and never actually doing it. Comic book continuity is a nebulous thing, but still, you’d think after forty plus years the guy could make some progress.
This is another reason I don’t care for most epic fantasy series. While watching Game of Thrones, even casually, I was struck by how little story progress occurs on that show. Because each season is an adaptation of a book that is in itself part of an extended second act, you end up with a story that looks cool, but really moves as if stuck in molasses. Oh, characters die, and there are dramatic upheavals now and then, but in the end, it’s a slow slog away from status quo.
Neither is meant as a criticism because that’s just a necessary part of writing an ongoing series or an epic. Spider-Man was created for a very specific type of story and to change him so much that he can’t tell that story would almost certainly be a mistake. A Game of Thrones is all about, well, a game of thrones. Once you finish that game, you finish the series. This is just the way these characters and stories are intended to work.
Perhaps this is why I prefer my recurring characters to have relatively little baggage. Tarzan only wrestles with his savage jungle background for as long as it is interesting. Otherwise, he’s out there, fighting bad guys and dinosaurs and having grand adventures. John Carter is a heroic blank overall, but that frees him up to go fight every weirdo and monster Barsoom has to offer. By being perfectly content and functional on their own, both characters are allowed to have adventures. And, sure, Tarzan and John Carter will walk away from those adventures pretty much the same guys they started them as, but both the story and I know that going in.
The same might be said for a lot of characters, but when those characters start expecting me to invest in their character arcs when I fully realize those arcs can never be completed (for good or bad), I find myself annoyed. Worse, I can actively dislike a story simply for existing.
As much as I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I never cared for any of the romantic stuff because I knew it would never lead anywhere. Buffy would never have a stable relationship because such relationships seem to signal The Dreaded Third Act of her character, and this is forbidden. Just as the Cartwright boys in Bonanza were never going to get married so when a love interest showed up, you knew she was bound to leave or die. One of the few missteps in the series as far as I’m concerned came when Xandar and Anya, two supporting characters with a long, well-established relationship, weren’t allowed to get married because . . . well, because as much as Joss Whedon gets credit for writing interesting female characters, he still tends to believe that marriage should exist as a plot device, not as a story worthy of itself. If you don’t believe it, just check out Firefly, where a happily married couple was clearly always intended to be sacrificed to the gods of drama.
Because most stories (especially recurring stories) are stuck in the second act, there are a lot of stories that never really get told. It’s rare to see a functional marriage in fiction because functional relationships are harder to squeeze drama out of and because we have been conditioned through years of storytelling that marriage equals the conclusion of a character’s story. It signals the end, not the beginning, and I’ll admit, as a married guy myself, I find that both annoying and preposterous.
To some degree, the very notion of The Dreaded Third act is absurd. Life isn’t neat and tidy, and human existence is a complicated nut to crack. This is why, even though I write standalone novels with a clear beginning, middle, and end, I usually attempt to make it feel as if the story is ending, but the world is going on. In a strange way, by choosing not to be stuck in a permanent second act, I can create a world full of stories, some beginning, some ending, some in-between. Because that’s life. Its beginnings and endings are not clear, and just because one story ends (i.e. Spider-Man actually makes peace with being Spider-Man), it doesn’t have to mean that character’s story is over (i.e. A Spider-Man who is actually comfortable in his own skin still has plenty of stories to tell).
None of this is going to change any time soon. It’s too ingrained in our cultural perceptions, and if I had a dime for every time a character with any sort of contentment was considered “boring” or any sort of genuine character growth was considered “ruined”, I’d have a lot of dimes. But it is something worth discussing, and who knows? It might change some day.
The Dreaded Third Act comes, whether we want it to or not.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,