Brother Cadfael, or, What Makes a Good Series

I think I first discovered Brother Cadfael through PBS, the series they did based on the books by Ellis Peters. It only took me a few episodes, though, before I was determined to find the books and read through them. That was years and years ago, and I have yet to read the entire series. That is not, however, due to a lack of interest; rather, I am reading them and collecting them as slowly as possible so as to prolong my enjoyment in them as long as possible.

So what is it about this mystery series, featuring a medieval monk with an adventurous past and an insatiable curiosity, that intrigues me so?

Aside from the brilliantly-drawn Cadfael himself, there are a few other reasons:

Good recurring characters: Not just Cadfael, but all the other recurring characters in the series are three-dimensional. They pursue their own lives, their own interests, have things happen to them, and interact with Our Hero very naturally.

Good side characters: These aren’t so much recurring characters as a nice bit of continuity – the goldsmith, for one, who features in one story, and then a few stories later we hear of him again in passing. Same with the corvisor’s son, and many others. Since these mysteries are all set in medieval times, when travel was difficult and most people lived and died in the same place their entire lives, this makes everything more believable, and contributes to the sense of feeling at home in Shrewsbury each time you read.

Good fleshing out of all characters: And to finish off the character studies – even the one-shot characters, the ones who only feature in one mystery and then vanish forever, are well-developed. Very few of them are flat or cardboard – in fact, that is one of my complaints about the PBS series, because they tend to reduce many of the one-shot characters to wooden caricatures instead of the real people Peters made them to be.

On to more specifics …

Good job moving from Abbott Heribert (lazy and easygoing) and Prior Robert (hard and uncompromising) to Father Radalfus: The first couple of books had the Father Abbott as a simple-hearted, simple-minded soul, easy for Cadfael to manipulate so he could do whatever he wanted in solving mysteries. In contrast, the Prior was cold, proud, and had a strong dislike for Cadfael, and went out of his way to make things difficult for the monk. Pretty stereotyped, wouldn’t you agree? But then Peters had Heribert demoted and brought in a new Abbott – Radalfus, who is clever, wise, just, uncompromising, understanding, and savvy. At times he is more than willing to give Cadfael freedom, but other times he imposes strict restrictions on him, and there’s nothing Cadfael can do about it. Prior Robert is reduced to a minor nuisance, and the entire situation is saved from mundane to clever.

Good with changing Cadfael’s helpers frequently – both introducing new sidekicks and keeping true to established canon: Cadfael tends to get novices as his helpers, and as they grow and pursue their studies, they move on, and he is supplied with a new assistant. This helps to keep things fresh and change things up without having to kill anyone off, and also makes sense given the Benedictine order. Another area where the PBS series slipped up – their Brother Oswin had the LONGEST novitiate known to man!

It’s not a perfect series – I get frustrated when book after book features a “villain” who is not truly guilty of desiring evil, but was just misguided. That works for one or two, but after a while it gets old. This was especially true in the book where a boy murdered an injured, helpless old man, but it was excused by Cadfael as “he was mad with love and grief.” Um, sorry, don’t buy that as a reason to let him escape to Wales. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in mercy triumphing over justice, but there are limits.

There are other flaws as well, but overall, it is a thoroughly enchanting series.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet! Hugh Beringar is EXCELLENT. No mere Watson to Cadfael’s Holmes (although Martin Freeman would make an awesome Hugh, but then, what role wouldn’t he be awesome in?), Hugh is clever and dangerous in his own right. He and Cadfael aren’t always on the same side – Cadfael serves the church, while Hugh serves the king and law of England – but they respect each other and work well together. And Hugh is a brilliant swordsman, too, which automatically gives him an extra 50 Points of Awesomeness.

Are you familiar with Brother Cadfael? What are some series that set up good examples of ways to keep the writing fresh and exciting for readers no matter how many books are in the series? Do you agree that, in murder mysteries of any sort, every now and then the villain HAS to be villainous?

Betraying Your Characters

I don’t usually write book reviews, but occasionally, on Goodreads, I’ll leave a review if I really have something that I think is worth saying. Something positive, that is. A lifetime of having “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” ingrained into me prevents me from leaving negative reviews. If I don’t like a book, I usually just don’t talk about it.

Until the last book I reviewed. I gave it one star, and I left a heartfelt, decidedly un-positive review. Why? What made me feel so strongly about this particular book that I had to say something?

Some people who reviewed it said that the author betrayed her readers, but it wasn’t that that left me with such a sour taste in my mouth.

The author betrayed her characters.

This was the third book in a trilogy. She had spent the first two books building up her characters in a certain way, and then, in this final book, she completely ripped them out of their old selves – the ones she still included. Some characters who had been built up in such a way as to expect them to play a major role in this book just faded from the pages. Certain relationships that had been teased at – well, I was going to say that they fizzled, but in fact, they weren’t even there. And the characters that did carry over?

They were not themselves.

Not the main character, and not the secondary characters.

And the story? It was flat. I can only imagine because the author had to fight with her characters every step of the way, forcing them to conform to her vision instead of letting them be themselves, and their revenge was to make the story boring.

To me, as a writer, this is one of the worst things you can do – force your characters to act, well, out-of-character. It is a betrayal of them, and ends up being a betrayal of yourself as well, because, of course, the characters have sprung from you.

I make no secret of the fact that all of my stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. To me, it is the characters that make the plot – people interacting with each other and with events. So perhaps I make a bigger deal of this than it really is. An improbable plot? I can shrug off with a laugh. Wrenching your characters out of themselves and turning them into puppets?

Outrage. Outrage to the point where I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything new from this author again, even though I’ve enjoyed almost all of her other books. If her own characters can’t trust her, how can I?

And so I had to vent, even to the point of leaving a negative review (sorry Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and all my aunts and uncles – sometimes you just gotta say something not-nice). (Although you will notice I didn’t link to the review – you can find it if you look, but I’m not going to make it too easy. I still have some principles!)

What are the writing crimes you cannot forgive in yourself or any other author?

Finding My Ark

This has been an up-and-down week for me.

I wrote a children’s picture book. WHEEE!

I got the typical “oh that’s nice” response or, worse, no response at all from family and friends when I tried to share my excitement. WAHHH.

One friend immediately asked about illustrations, and we started collaborating that night. WHEEE!

Trying to figure out the best way to self-publish that offered me electronic options AND the freedom to offer print books to indie bookstores and local galleries on my own AND didn’t cost the sky completely and totally freaked me out. WAHHH.

I had a beautifully positive response from the few friends who did get excited for me, and my first critique partner. WHEEE!

My husband and I had one of those conversations where no one is mad at the other, but everyone ends up feeling lousy afterward (nothing to do with writing). WAHHH.

And then I got sick.

And it’s been raining for what feels like 40 days and 40 nights.

So, I’m finding an ark.

Today I’m going to wear nice clothes, bake cookies, play loud and fun music, laugh with my girls, work on sewing their skirts I cut out last week, and throw encouragement at everyone I can find, even if it is just online. I will hide myself from discouragement in joy. And hopefully when I emerge, the waters will have receded.

Just as soon as the two-year-old stops her wailing for no reason in the background.

What is your “ark” – where do you go, what do you do to rest and recover from discouragement or disappointment, or just plain blah-ness? Are you living in an area that’s been getting drowned, like me, or are you one of the ones suffering from drought? If you are, I so wish I could send you some of our wet!