Companion Novels: When Does it Make Sense to Write One

Companion novels are growing in popularity and sales. If you don’t know what a companion novel is, here is the definition offered on also called parallel novels or literary spinoffs, these are retellings which take place in the same world as another popular work, often from the perspective of a minor character.

I became curious about companion novels because of the growing trend especially with self-published authors. Companion novels can be a great opportunity to expand on a world, characters, and story that readers are interested in. However–mostly with self-published authors but not entirely–authors seem to be retelling the same story with another character. If you are considering writing a companion novel, here are some tips and questions to ask yourself to determine whether this is a good idea for you and your readership.

Are your readers engaged in the original story? Often times authors, who have enervated reviews from dissipating readers of their first book, will unveil uninteresting news about their next book: a companion novel. If you have less than one hundred reviews on Goodreads or any of the major review sites, and your readers have already moved on from that book, it is nonsensical to write a companion. The answer to this question is clear and pronounced: if your readers are not asking for a companion novel, you shouldn’t be writing one.

Do you have a minor character in the original story who is memorable but not a major part of the plot? Do you have a separate story arc for that character? If you can make the companion read like an original story, it is worth exploring. A lot of complaints [in reviews] from readers is that companion novels have the same plot. Readers are reading–and paying for–the same story twice. This may work initially, but if you make it a habit, your readership will decline. Most often in companion novels authors will choose the love interest or a family member. That is fine if there is something left to be expanded on. However, if you have resolved that character arc in the first book, it makes for a dismal reading experience. Make sure your companion idea has its own story arc that is new and fresh for readers.

This rule is optional. Write an outline and see if you have new ideas. Are the scenes unique and provocative? Do they excite you when thinking about writing them? If you notice that your scenes are throwaway ideas from the original story, explore the reasons why you did not put them in the original story. If they did not make for stimulating storytelling, you should not move forward with the companion idea. Is there anything in your outline that could have a reader respond with, “you did that in…” or express dissatisfaction? The purpose of a companion piece is to satisfy your readers–not annoy them.

Are you choosing the right character or the one that is easiest to write? Review sites and social media will tell you what readers think of your story. Sometimes readers will email you directly with their grievances or compliments. If they are not talking about a specific character or your book at all, it is wise to move on to a new idea. However, if you do notice your fans are interested in a particular character, it makes sense to explore their storyline further. You see this with stories about affluent families: retellings will be about the servants or the friend from a lower class, etc. Find a character in the story who would make for an interesting story of their own. Character selection is crucial. Do not choose the sister from book one simply because she is the sister.    

Are there any unanswered questions in the original story that you can capitalize on in the companion novel? Again, this goes back to you not writing the exact same story twice. That is the main message you should take away. If your original story (for those writing a companion to their own story) is a finished book with no loose ends, it is not feasible to write a companion novel. You may even come off looking like a sleazy car salesman for writing the same book–unless we are talking about a free book you are gifting your readers. Don’t give readers the impression that you are solely in it for money.

If you are writing a companion novel based on original work written by another author, please learn and know the original work. Do not market it as a companion novel and get obvious facts wrong. This will upset loyal fans. They will publicly call you out about it. They will also put those examples in their reviews and on social media. As a writer, at least two of your goals, I assume are, to be widely read and enjoyed by most (no story is loved by everyone). Treat the original author’s work with care and attention.

Lastly, to ensure you keep your authorial voice, do study the original work–in those instances where you are not the original author–but know where to draw the line between sounding like a replicate of that author and having your own original voice. You want to give readers a sense that your story belongs in the realm of the original work but not feel like they are reading a carbon copy that has been modernized.

Here are some examples of companion novels that readers felt did not deliver:

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopaida is the female perspective of The Odyssey. Here are a few excerpts from reviews written by dissatisfied readers:

“It succeeds in its ambitious concept and style but comes off more like a postscript to The Odyssey than its own story.” Goodreads review

“Turns out that she mostly indulges in recapitulating the bulk of the original with a few wild theories and speculations thrown in as supposed rumors that Penelope has gleaned in the after-life.” Goodreads review

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin is life after Alice and Wonderland. Here are some complaints from reviewers:

“First, the voice of the girl in the ‘Alice books’ is not Alice. That voice is all Mr. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) creating a pretend Alice for the real Alice’s amusement and that of her sisters.” Goodreads review

“The book tries to consider these possibilities from Alice’s perspective, but it’s unclear if her perspective is that of the 81-year-old Alice that bookends the story, or if it’s a more straight version, where seven-year-old Alice is talking to us when she’s seven, etc.” Goodreads review

Another The Odyssey companion to make this list is Patrick Dillon’s Ithaca which is told from the POV of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. A few examples of readers pointing out what the author got wrong:

“Odysseus recounting his adventures to the Phaeacians had nothing to do with Telemachus. He wasn’t even present at the time in either the epic or the novel.” Goodreads review

” While I respect the author for trying to bring Homer to a new generation, the last thing we really needed was yet another YA novel full of bow-wielding feisty (but stupid) princesses, and dull, world-weary teenagers disillusioned and bitter to discover that people and life are more nuanced than black and white.” Goodreads review

An Amazon reviewer, who titled their review “Not Really Necessary” said, “The problem I have with it is that it’s little more than relatively interesting.”

Here are some examples of companion novels that were well received:

In Circe, the author, Madeline Miller successfully writes a companion novel to The Odyssey told from the perspective of Circe. These are just a few of the positive reviews: 

A Goodreads reviewer, satisfied with the protagonist character arc said, “After all, she did spend many years turning them into pigs, but then she was only bringing to light the least attractive part of their inner selves.

Another Goodreads reviewer said, “Circe, oh Circe! Her character was so well described – such a strong powerful woman.”

Nelly Dean by Alison A. Case is a retelling of Wuthering Heights from a servant’s perspective.

A Goodreads reviewer said, “One of the best retellings I have read. Case clearly knows and loves Wuthering Heights, and her interpretations of his gaps and hints are just fascinating.”

“This was a fascinating dip into history with the relationships between servants and their masters and the realities of life on a poorer estate at the fore.” 

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is an addition to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

One Goodreads reviewer commented on Horowitz authorial voice saying, “I think the style, the authorial voice, is dead-on Conan Doyle. It’s as close to ACD as anyone has ever come.”

“Horowitz has upheld the spirit and voice of Holmes and Watson and sustained that wonderful Victorian atmosphere of late nineteenth century London, while at the same time offering the reader a new, fresh adventure with his own spin.” Goodreads reviewer

Sources used for this article:

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