Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and it got me thinking. This was one of three wildly popular series, a group that also includes the Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history and the Millennium and Hunger Games trilogies have sold tens of millions each.

Writers dream of writing a series like these and publishers crave them, but what made these books in particular succeed on such a large scale when other series have enjoyed just modest success? Was it the characters? The setting? The story? It was all of these factors and more. Here are my thoughts on why these three series achieved such staggering success:

Powerful premises. A young boy who is treated cruelly by his step-parents discovers one day he is a wizard—and not just any wizard, but The Chosen One. A young girl who is abused as a child ends up in a psychiatric hospital, left to suffer more abuse, until one day a guardian ad litem takes up her case. Another teen-age girl volunteers for the hunger games, facing almost certain death, to spare her younger sister the same fate. How could one not want to delve into such books?

Main characters who rise above bleak, harrowing circumstances and overcome incredible odds. Harry Potter must face the most powerful evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen must defeat 23 rivals, including a possible lover. Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (never could figure out which one was the main character) must surmount destroyed reputations and organized crime syndicates backed by a secret state police.

Highly imaginative and detailed settings. Hogwarts is described in wonderful, minute detail, a beautiful and scary place. There is nothing beautiful about the nation of Panem in the Hunger Games. Sweden is a real place, but the land described by Larsson doesn’t fit the tired stereotypes of a place featuring gorgeous blonde women, and people buying Ikea furniture and driving Volvos.

Complex and intriguing stories with ever-changing plot lines and growing stakes. Each series features stakes that are (paraphrasing the words of Donald Maass from his book, Writing the Breakout Novel) both personal and public. Public stakes impact large groups of people, nations or the entire world. Personal stakes impact one or more characters, but they are profound enough that the reader cares deeply what happens to the character.

Empathy. All three authors create a sense of empathy in their characters. Didn’t you feel like you knew Harry, Ron and Hermione intimately by the end of the Harry Potter series? Readers badly wanted to see Lisbeth and Katniss survive and thrive.

Themes that matter. Overcoming abuse and neglect, starvation, exploitation of women, violence against women—these three series cover important themes. These authors dealt with big subjects within the context of page-turning stories.

Extraordinarily gifted authors. J.K. Rowling is a story-teller almost without peer. Larsson was a renowned journalist in Sweden who managed to write three novels while working fulltime for a cutting-edge magazine and Collins was an established author even before she wrote her series.

These three authors have given the rest of us a dream to which to aspire. It’s not about the riches their books have generated. It’s about the work itself. Its popularity speaks for itself.

Why do you think these series have succeeded on such a large scale?




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2 responses to “Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

  1. On the contrary, Rowling’s books are the only ones mentioned here that have even a hint of originality. The characters in the Larsson books and The Hunger Games are new and fresh only to people that have not read much sci-fi or fantasy before– and those are exactly the people who bought them by the sack. An abused tattooed teenager is old hat to those of us that have read sci-fi steadily, and the translations of the books made them nigh unreadable. Likewise the tough-ass girl protecting her sister. the settings are anything but new. Philip K. Dick would have recognized them, since he wrote them decades ago.

    The big end reveal in Larsson’s books was the least interesting thing about it, too– the story “twists” are common fare for all American soap operas, and The Hunger Games steal from pretty much every post-apocalyptic story written before them.

    Mainstream readers without a strong fantasy and sci-fi background were what made these books famous, because to them, it was fresh. I read their arguments for their cherished books, and laughed. To me, it all bordered on plagairism. HP did have some fresh stuff worked in with the old ideas culled from CS Lewis & Tolkien and L’Engle; and managed to make a charming story, albeit one that was re-told through successive books. Maybe two. At least her characters were interesting, and their interactions stimulating.

    I don’t believe any of these three authors has a tenth of the skill of CS Lewis, honestly, and I don’t mean just imagination– I mean the mechanics of writing, though it’s hard to tell w/Larsson, as I could not read his books in their first language. I can tell that no matter what, those books needed more editing!

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comments. I’m not a big sci-fi reader bug you raise some good points. There are few original plots and it is difficult for any author to avoid comparisons, especially in the genres in which these series are written. I don’t think any of these three are great writers but they are very good story tellers. I think as writers we tend to read with a hyper-critical eye and notice things that go over the heads of the casual reader. Points well taken. Thanks.

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