Except where Chrestomanci is concerned, I usually find that the end of the book is the end of the important things I have to say about the central character.
“A Whirlwind Tour of Australia,” 1992
As far as I have read in Diana Wynne Jones’ work, this quote is quite true. The Chrestomanci series is the only one that a reader can point to and say, “Chrestomanci’s always important, even if he only physically shows up near the end sometimes. A presence in every story = series!”
And yet, if you have read through any number of her books, you’ll know she’s written sequels. Howl’s Moving Castle is followed with Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Don’t forget The Merlin Conspiracy stems from Deep Secret. The Year of the Griffin comes after The Dark Lord of Derkholm. (I would also expound on The Dalemark Quartet, but I have yet to read the third or fourth books, so that wouldn’t be fair.)
So how can her quote still be true?
Diana Wynne Jones pulls off something brilliant with these pseudo-sequels, something I wish more writers would feel inclined to do: shift away from the central character and let readers have more of this brilliant world they’ve worked so hard to create.
Take Castle and House. Each story starts with a fresh cast of main characters. Each book starts in a different country, but Jones quickly establishes that these countries are in Howl’s universe by relating the countries’ locations to Ingary, where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. Castle in the Air introduces some rather odd second-stringers the reader wouldn’t care much about: a magical black cat and her kitten, a cranky genie, a magic carpet. In the third act spells lift to reveal the magic carpet is Calcifer, the genie Howl, and the black cat Sophie. The kitten is a new addition: Morgan, Howl and Sophie’s child. House of Many Ways utilizes the Howl family, too, but not until halfway through the book, and they are again NOT central characters.
I should also note how much time passes between publications: Howl came out in 1986, Castle in 1990, and House in 2008. This may be presumptuous on my part, but I doubt Jones had House of Many Ways in mind back in the 1980s. She wrote Howl to stand alone, and it does. Both Castle and House give us a glimpse of what our beloved characters are up to a few years later while at the same time providing fresh stories. (PS—never has a story made me snort so loud I thought I’d wake the kids like Castle in the Air. Absolutely hilarious.)
This same tactic applies to the previously mentioned titles. In The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Elda is just a young griffin sibling in a family of griffins and humans (best read the book to understand that), but in Year of the Griffin, she is the central character we follow to The University. Deep Secret has two narrators: a junior Magid and a struggling young woman named Maree Mallory. Her teen cousin Nick Mallory is an important second-stringer who impacted fans so deeply that one boy told Jones at a book-signing that he wanted to learn more about Nick. Jones thought about it and agreed. Lo and behold, Nick becomes an important character in The Merlin Conspiracy a few years later.*
Of course there are those stories that won’t fit in a single volume; writers shouldn’t think they only have so many pages to cram with conflict and character. But one shouldn’t pad out for the sake of a series, either, as Jones explains with some criticism in “Two Kinds of Writing?”: “A book should conclude satisfactorily; to leave the ending for the next volume is cynical (and annoying for readers).” Let’s not annoy our readers. Let’s not feel the world we’ve built up from nothing can never be used again. And let’s not forget the characters to whom we’ve given birth. They may be just the right touch for a whole new story we have yet to imagine.
*As explained in Jones’ “The Origins of The Merlin Conspiracy,” which can be found in the 2012 edition of Reflections on the Magic of Writing. Which you should read. Now.