Character Arcs — Or, Where Were You Going With That Series?

What happens when you write a book and either people like the characters so much they ask you to continue writing about them, or the story’s too big for just one book and it turns into more than one? Well that, my friend, is what’s called a series.

Writing a series is a good way for a writer to establish him or herself in the heart and mind of a reader. If readers like the first book, then they’re more apt to purchase the second and so on. Plus, the writer begins to know and understand the main character (or characters) and is able to delve further into what makes them tick, bringing a depth to them that wouldn’t be possible in the length of one book.

Which brings us to the concept of character arc. In fiction, readers expect the character to change in some way by the end of the book. Change in protagonist = character arc. For example, if the protagonist starts out shy and insecure, then by the end of the story they should have at least given that character more confidence. But how do you handle character arc across an entire series?

That’s a bit tricky.

If you’re a plotter, when you plan a series you should be able to figure out the immediate character arc in each individual book as well as over the whole series. For writers who are pantsers (writing by the seat of your pants), this tends to be problematic, although it doesn’t have to be.

Begin by thinking about your character: what problem or problems will they encounter in your story? Could be an inner trait, like shyness, or an outer obstacle, like the world’s coming to an end and mutant-zombie gerbils are going to take over the world in a rodent apocalypse. Or both. Now, take that problem and jot down a couple of notes about how the character is going to solve it. (Don’t worry, it’s only a little jotting.) How will the character change? They must change, or the book won’t be as compelling as it could be.

Got it? Great. Now, take a moment to pinpoint the larger idea behind the character’s problem. In the case of overcoming shyness, it could be that Henry was dropped on his head as an infant and as a result, he’s never felt safe. How can you work that character trait/story problem into a larger story arc? Figure out how many books you want to write and jot down a couple of lines detailing Henry’s trajectory from shy, insecure pet salesman to studly mutant-zombie gerbil exterminator. Perhaps in the first book, he alone figures out that a certain kind of kibble made in Minot, North Dakota gives the little furballs a virus that replicates at an alarming rate. By the end of book 1, our Henry could be on the front lines, tracking down the last stores of kibble and destroying them, all the while eluding the elusive rodent zombies. Maybe give the guy a budding love interest, for good measure.

The next book could show Henry gaining confidence, both in his gerbil-hunting prowess as well as his ability to cater to his girlfriend’s every need (hey—it’s my fantasy, uh, I mean post. I get to choose.) Maybe in book 2 he finds that single-malt whiskey from some obscure Scottish village protects non-zombie gerbils from the virus. Thus, Henry gains even more confidence in his ability to fight the evil mammals. Of course, he’s too busy stopping the gerbils to worry about how self-conscious he is, which also shows his arc.

By book 3, our boy wipes out the bad gerbils, saving humankind from certain death. Yes, there’s a bunch of shredded paper and half-eaten North Dakota kibble to clean up, but the human race is saved! And Henry has a girlfriend! And…

Anyway, you get the picture. If you don’t have any intention of writing a series, then it’s a bit more complicated when you finish book 1 and realize there could be more to the story, but you can still work with the original concept in the first book. The main thing is to give your character an inner struggle/obstacle/problem with enough weight to carry a series. Trust issues, insecurity, fear of gerbils, it all works. Then, let your imagination run wild.

Author: D.V. Berkom

DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest region of the US, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat. Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes in the male point of view whenever she gets a chance. Indies Unlimited: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/author/d-v-berkom/ Amazon US author page link: http://www.amazon.com/DV-Berkom/e/B004EVOYH6 Website: www.dvberkom.com

14 thoughts on “Character Arcs — Or, Where Were You Going With That Series?”

  1. Great post, DV. I’m mulling over ideas for the next series, so this is very helpful. Question for you, though: If you’re writing an open-ended series (which I have no intention of doing…I don’t think), with a hero who just keeps having adventures in book after book, do you plan for a character arc? Or does it just happen as you get to know the character better?

    I think this happens more often in the mystery or thriller genre than in fantasy, although I’ve seen some urban fantasy series that don’t seem to have an end date yet. Just curious. Thanks!

    1. My experience has been a little of both, Lynne. The first Leine Basso book was going to be a one-off, but turned into a series. I took her character arc from the first book (guilt from her past as an assassin turns into acceptance of herself and her skill set when she has to save her daughter) and strengthened it by giving her a way to use that knowledge and skill to help trafficked victims in the second I intend to build on that in the third book. The more I understand the character, the easier her arc becomes.

      Kate Jones was always going to be a series and I had a general arc in mind where she’d change from victim to victor, but I wrote it not knowing exactly how many books I could write before the story became stale. I was in danger of pushing the series too far down that road in the fifth book and knew I had to make the big change in the sixth. When I wrote what I thought was going to be the last book in the series, it opened up a whole bunch of interesting ideas to pursue in the next one, building on the change she experienced.

      The best part: the sky’s the limit when it comes to where you can take your character.

  2. lmao – Oh I want to read about Henry and the Gerbils!
    On a more serious note, I don’t know whether it’s a girl thing or what, but I find I want to know things about Henry from /before/ the attack of the mutant ninja gerbils. Not great wads of backstory, but litle snippets now and then, also teeny weeny details like favourite food/colour/music/whatever [if they can be worked into a a scene as an aside]. In other words I don’t just want to see Henry changing, I want to see bits of the really, really bad ‘before’ pictures as well.

    1. Absolutely, AC. It’s how you set up the character and show how he/she changes that’s the interesting bit. If you see Henry’s before picture, then you know when/why he’s changed at the end. The little things about your character speaks volumes, giving the reader a fuller picture. It all works together, building a richer narrative.

  3. Hi DV, as you know I’m a pantser. I do jot down little changes, or ideas and put them aside. I start with my characters flaws and decide if I want them to change or stay the same. Usually somewhere in the process, someone jumps up and waves a hand and asks to get noticed. For me that’s when the change begins. It works for me. Some characters beg to be different from where they started out.

    1. Don’t you love it when characters start ‘suggesting’ their arc? For me, it’s when the scene stops dead and writing becomes a chore. Then I know things need to change.

  4. I got a surprise when what was supposed to be a short story became a trilogy. What you say is exactly what I encountered. Just like real people, our characters have to grow and change – albeit at a much faster rate. Then, I found the even harder part was wrapping everything up at the end so readers are left satisfied.That was a real challenge.

    1. The writing gods laugh at our plans, Yvonne. Short stories become epic fantasies, serials become 7-8 book series, novels become novellas. The creative process is a lot like life: we intend one thing, but those intentions morph into something completely different… and many times the end result improves on the original.

  5. I never thought I could write sci-fi, let alone a series. But when you get dared by a master of horror, you take up the dare to save face. Well, I delivered 1 book, he read it, and said I needed to write a trilogy. I told him he was nuts. But he insisted. And now I’m working on book 4 (what do you call that? Four-a-gy??) And I’ve seen my main character grow from a wimpy half-breed alien teenager to being in charge of a military contingent gearing up to do battle with a supposedly unstoppable alien race. I’d say he’s grown. Not to mention, picked up a mate, and will soon have another member of the family in which to lose sleep over. LOL!
    Great post!

  6. Great post, DV. I never intended to get into the trilogy, series writing style. I always figured there were too many, hugely different, ideas crawling around in my head to devote excessive amounts of time to one of them. Having said that, I have story outlines for sequels to a couple of my, supposedly, one offs. I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll get around to developing them; I think it would then be a case of re-marketing the first books to kick off (giving them a second chance at life I suppose) a sequel, and perhaps even subsequent books.

    Character development, as is evident in real life, can go on and on and on; some, sadly, don’t of course but that’s their (those poor, locked in souls) loss. So Character arcs can be malleable. I think that, for me, it would be more a case of interest and excitement: if the writer can maintain that, then so too will the reader.

    Thanks for the insights, DV.

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