The Ballad of Prequels and Origin Stories

Hope you are all enjoying a safe and healthy Memorial Day Monday.

We actually got some snow in the mountains this long weekend which gave me a great excuse to read (yay!), and I am about halfway through Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes which is both a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy and an origin story of sorts for President Snow. Despite being a huge fan of hers (her middle grade Gregor of the Overland series is actually my favorite) I confess to being a bit underwhelmed and I wonder if it is due to what I call ‘prequel fatigue’. It seems like a bit of a thing at the moment where highly successful franchises look to origin stories or prequels as a kind of brand life extension. There’s Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust (a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy) which was then followed by The Secret Commonwealth (which is confusingly actually a sequel to the trilogy) – not to mention the Fantastic Beasts films that are essentially prequels to the Harry Potter saga. While in both these circumstances I enjoyed returning to the worlds that both Pullman and Rowling so masterfully created, I did find myself constantly looking for (and finding!) plot and character inconsistencies that diminished my overall enjoyment. With the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I started wondering about the whole purpose of these sorts of prequels. Did I really need to read an origin story for President Snow? (not really…) Do I want to feel empathy for him as a future villain? (again…not really…)

The experience has got me wondering about the whole ‘origin story’ issue when it comes to villains. Maybe I just prefer a well-developed albeit enigmatic villain figure, but sometimes getting too much information about a character (particularly a powerful, evil one!) can actually diminish their impact – like peeking behind the Wizard of Oz curtain only to discover the criminal mastermind is actually just a sad-sack with a tragic family history…

In terms of the Hunger Games, I feel that this prequel doesn’t really add much to my understanding of the world Katniss came to inhabit, and I also feel a little cheated that the author didn’t come up with something more intriguing than a story about Coriolanus Snow. Is that mean spirited of me? (probably) but I wanted to be as blown away by this new novel as I did by the original first Hunger Games book (sigh).

So TKZers, what is your feeling about the whole ‘prequel’ thing? Have you read a series that successfully extended the brand by doing this in a way that didn’t feel merely derivative? Do you think origin stories like this for villains can be successful? If so, how??


27 thoughts on “The Ballad of Prequels and Origin Stories

  1. My apologies for going to the movies, but there are two prequel “series” that are, to my mind, 180 degrees apart – though they both take place in the same space (you’ll pardon the pun I hope)…

    Being the sci-fi geek that I am (I read Asimov, Clark, Herbert, Bradbury in middle school, high school, and college – and watched 2001, Silent Running, Alien, A Boy and His Dog), I’m speaking of Star Wars Episodes I, II. & III, and the “young” Star Trek films.

    At the risk of igniting an intergalactic/space-time continuum conflict, the former were disappointing in several ways, most notably how “whiny” the future Darth Vader was and how undeveloped most of the new characters were (without getting into how they, and their worlds, were overly CGI’d).

    On the other end of the galaxy, much, much closer to home, the young crew of the Enterprise did seem a bit better shaped by the writers’ knowledge of who Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al. had become, and “backed into” them accordingly…

    Perhaps it was the inside jokes and familiarity with the “older” characters, and maybe these films didn’t take themselves quite as seriously, but I got the feeling the writers here studied their subjects better and developed story and plot lines that naturally “devolved” to the earlier star-dates…

    That said, I return to the original frontier – between my ears – and my WIP… perhaps a bit more prequel study on this up front will answer a few “how’d I get HERE?” questions…

    Happy Memorial Day to those of you in the States… (though some may not notice not having the day off at home…) Stay safe…

    • Definitely agree on the Star Wars prequels and I thought the Anakin story diminished Darth Vader as the villain in the original movies (despite his redemption in Return of the Jedi). I also enjoyed the reboot of the Star Trek with the younger versions of the famous crew – perhaps it is all about the ‘freshness’ of the vision and whether the stories and characters can stand on their own for those who never knew the original (like my kids – who loved the Star Trek ones but who were ‘meh’ on the Star Wars prequels despite becoming huge Star Wars fans).

  2. As George said, “It depends.” A well-done prequel can make a good read (which is all I’m ever looking for.)
    I’m not sure how you’d categorize “flashback books” that look at something from the early life of a familiar character. One of my critique partners is working on one, per the “request” of her publisher.
    I wrote a novella where a secondary series character reflects on the rookie days case that convinced him he’d chosen the right career, but I’m not sure it fits your definition.
    (We had rain and snow at our house yesterday, too!)

    • Right on the money… a well done prequel should be able to stand on its own… and make the originals seem like well done sequels…

  3. Interesting questions, Clare. I haven’t read any of the prequels you mention but I suspect those that were written purely to make money by flogging the brand are of lesser quality than those that were written from the author’s heart.

    Art is art and business is business. Yes, authors have to mix the two but it’s easy to lose sight when dollar signs are involved.

    • I think that’s why I’m so disappointed – as this feels like nothing more than a limp brand extension when it wasn’t necessary at all and I don’t get the sense that the author was dying to tell the Snow story:((

  4. I agree with the comments on “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”-I was so disappointed with the former’s prequels.

    Books? I’ve read all of “The Circle” books by Dekker, and his prequels, IMHO, are well-done and can stand alone.

    • Haven’t read those books but it does seem that it’s the ‘stand alone’ quality that’s needed – that and a fresh take on the story or world. I’m feeling a bit jaded today but will have to check out The Circle books someday!

  5. I’m not a fan of prequels, though I would definitely read them. Here’s something interesting that I’ve come across: When the prequels are full length novels, they are much more disappointing than a novella e-published. Don’t know how that works.

    Also, in my opinion, if an author publishes prequels anywhere from 1-5 years after fame, I’d say it’s to make money, but the Hunger Games came out a solid decade ago. I haven’t read the book yet, but I think we’re safe in saying she wrote it from the heart.

    • Maybe that’s why I was so puzzled by the lackluster story given it’s been so long since the original trilogy came out. I wondered if she’d signed a deal years ago and felt she had to fulfill it, despite having writer’s block on how to handle a prequel (??). It just feels so ‘dialed in’ that it’s hard to believe it was a passion project of hers (but it definitely could have been!).

  6. Thinking about successful movie series, Clare, the Back To The Future shows jumped to mind. All three are storytelling masterpieces that can stand on their own or be watched in any order. As for the Hunger Games books, I can’t say I’ve read any, but I think they have some of the best covers I’ve ever seen. Enjoy a safe Memorial Day!

    • The new cover is just as striking – thought the title is definitely weird!! I loved the first Back to the Future movie but the other installments didn’t quite capture the fun for me. I think I’m more disappointed with this prequel because I think the author could have come up with a brand new world and series of books rather than recycle Panem (the world of the hunger games) so I think what I’m feeling most is grief for what could have been:((

  7. Clare,
    You bring up a topic I’ve been wrestling with in my own books. I’m not recalling an example of a prequel book I’ve read that I can add to the discussion. I agree with what we’ve seen in this thread–that probably the prequel examples given are to milk the market (understandable purely from the financial side).

    But I wrestle with this a lot because I always tend to think in terms of book series. I planned one 3 book series in a particular order, but then have written the *second* manuscript first, and the first book in the series is half-way done (none published). So I ask myself, should I keep to my original order? Should I publish the 2nd book first and forget about #1? Or should I publish #1 as a prequel after the fact (gut instinct says no–the stories are too closely related so there will be no element of surprise if the ‘first’ book is published last).

    I’m brainstorming a different series that may have about 5 books in it, based on a son who becomes embroiled in a series of events due to his father’s actions. Yet curiosity has me wondering if I should do a prequel on the dad, even if only for myself to work out details about his development and how that impacts decisions of future characters.

    So while prequels are done with marketing in mind, and those authors trading on their well-established name, I wonder if part of it is that they just can’t stop exploring their story universe and perhaps sometimes genuinely think it’s a good idea to put it before the public, not realizing it will lose it’s effect, where maybe they should have written the prequel for their own satisfaction and then put it away?

    For my above idea, I think I will end up at least writing a partial manuscript on the dad but keeping it to myself. Once you’ve created a story-world, it’s hard to quit exploring it. 😎

    • BK – you make an excellent point about authors not wanting to leave the story world they’ve created and I think I would have been super excited to see Suzanne Collins produce something with a new take on the world she had created in the Hunger Games (maybe a country outside Panem). It’s just it feels so ‘meh’ to be circling the same issues, themes and even characters from the Hunger Games…maybe that’s what we all need to consider when creating our own series – what sets apart each book and gives it freshness even if it explores the same story-world we’ve created,

  8. Prequels are often used in the world of self-pubs as freebies to sell a series, but, if you are asking money for it, you dang well better be offering something that isn’t a half-assed, lazy money grab. The same sentiment with sequels.

    The best prequels/sequels of a series use the rich world the author has created for new stories. They may or may not have the primary characters or a secondary character as the new main character, but they head off in new directions with new energy. Brandon Sanderson with his Cosmere fantasy world has hopped all around the time line of his world for different series, and Andre Norton did the same thing with her Witchworld stories.

    JK Rowling has proven that even one of the greatest writers ever can destroy her reputation by retreading the same ground. Being a novelist certainly didn’t help when she wrote a play and a movie series in the Wizarding World as an obvious money-grab in the full-of-herself belief that her novelist skills suited other media. Walk away, JKR. For the love of your reputation, just walk away.

    • It’s so frustrating and disappointing when an author recycles and retreads over the same ground rather than give us something new (even in the same universe/story world)…sigh…

  9. I agree that “prequels” and origin stories of villains fail to engage the reader. Leave some mystery to be discovered, some challenge to be met in your story. In a curious way, I feel that the author who reveals too much of the villain’s upbringing as, for example, Thomas Harris’s origin story of Hannibal the Cannibal, is shortchanging his audience.

    • Yes – it does seem that too much backstory revealed all at once ruins the mystery for a villain. I feel like this particular prequel was heavy handed when it came to Snow’s past making him less rather than more interesting.

  10. Prequels are a bit like prologues in a book to me. It’s information that can be fit in where needed to understand something or someone: an antagonist, a plot point, a past event.

    Did President Snow need a book? No, but he did need a backstory. Did Anakin need a trilogy? No, but he needed a backstory. Did we need to know about Newt Scamander or about Grindelwald? No and my cynical view is that JK wanted to keep her books and her world relevant.

    Having said that though, I find writing pieces of backstory helps flesh out my characters. I’ve got a couple of novellas I’m working on that show certain points in a character’s development. It could well be that these never see the light of day, but it was important to me to solidify who this guy is.

    • Write out the bad guys’ story and motives. What was their plan, their motive, etc., so it makes sense instead of being convenient info for the hero to figure out.

  11. Sometimes the comic book genre does an excellent job making the villians and heroes richer by filling in more details.
    I agree dont make me feel sympathetic for a villian.
    I am not even a big fan of the so called anti-hero.
    Game of thrones did a great job giving proper motivation to each character at least till the last season.

    • Warren – I did think GoT did a great job giving those details and motivation – maybe this prequel just came too late as by now the story arc with Snow was complete (in my mind at least).

  12. As for origin stories of villains, the only one that comes to mind is “Wicked”. This is a bit different as it is not the original author going back to their own work. And it switched genres; Children’s to adult fantasy. Did it add anything to the world or characters created by L. Frank Baum? Not for me. Was it commercially successful? Yes.

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