The series character is a dream-come-true for many writers. Having your next book sold before you even start writing it just because the agent, editor, and public wants to know what happens next, well, what writer wouldn’t want that?
There are two types of series characters in my mind – the type in a closed series and the type in an open-ended series. The first type are characters that we see in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, or David Eddings’ fantasy series The Belgarad and The Malorian. The second type are those like Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s books.
The first type, the closed series, happens when the plot is too big for a single book, but the series deals with one or two major story arc s and several smaller arcs. By the end of a set number of books all the loose ends have been tied up – the bad guys are all dead or punished; the good guys have met their glorious end, or received their reward. There really isn’t much difference between these characters and the characters in a single book novel except that the problems they face take longer to resolve and they’re supported by a larger cast of minor characters.
This post will focus on the second type, the main characters of an open-ended series.
Some examples of this type of series are: the Stephanie Plum novels, the Alex Delware novels, Sherlock Holmes, Anita Blake, Meredith Gentry, or Mercedes Thompson – to name a few. Each one features similar elements: a small cast of characters that appear in every book (the regulars), a small cast of characters that appear briefly in most of the books (regular supporting characters), a small cast of ever changing characters that you only see in a single book (the plot drivers), a single plot, or several smaller intertwined plots, that can be completely solved and wrapped up in a single book, and several small sub-plots, usually relationship based, that continue from one book to the next.
The real difference between a standard character (whether their story fills one novel or three) and a series character is the level of character growth and the speed at which that growth occurs. A series character has to grow and change a little each book which means that their growth is slower, and more complete, than a single story character.
This growth consists of various things including discovering new personal strengths, achieving long-time goals or dreams, a new development in a friendship or romantic relationship, or coming to revelations about fellow characters, either positive or negative. For instance, the main character might meet a new love interest at the beginning of book one and become friends by the end of book one. By the end of book two they’ve become friends and the main character has admitted their feelings to themselves. In book three they go on a date, and so it goes. At the same time the trials in book 1 make them face a long standing fear, and in book 2 they realize that their boss is actually a crook, and so on.
By spacing and pacing these personal growths the writer not only fills out the single plot of each novel, but ties the novels together. And no character can simply stay the same, day-after-day, year-after-year. The reader will not believe in your character if they do not grow and evolve as a person. Think about the person you were a year ago, the person you were five years ago – how have your tastes in clothing or music changed? Are you friends with the same people? Do you believe the same things religiously, politically, or ideologically? Have you experienced any big life-events such as your own wedding, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, the re-marriage of one of your parents, moving to a new house, or moving to a new city/state/country? How did these change you or your outlook on life? How many places have you worked in that time? All these things change us and shape us and we continue to grow as people – not really getting closer to perfect, just getting closer to who we ARE or who we want to be.
As Temperance Brennon on the television show BONES says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “The book is about the mystery and the science that solves it, the characters are just there to move the reader from body to investigation to solution”. True, perhaps, to the writer, but to the reader, books are about people and their emotions and reactions and personal development in the face of some sort of puzzle or adversity. The plot, therefore, shapes the character instead of the character simply being a device of the plot.
These changes and personal sub-plots must be as well thought out, as suitable, and as plausible as the main plot. And they must remain consistent. Looking to BONES for an example again – in season 1 Brennon specifically says she doesn’t plan on ever having kids, but her opinion changes over the next 5 seasons. This is not a sudden change, but a gradual one, not a plot device but a natural development in her character that later affects the plot line of the series. (I hope I didn’t spoil anything for anyone).
If something is not in the nature of a character then the nature of that character MUST CHANGE before that event can plausibly occur. There are lots of things that can change the way people think so your possibilities are endless, but you must stay true to the basic identity of your character. Forcing the character to do things that aren’t natural for them will either make the character ring false, or you should use it as a plot device, not a character development.
Brennon didn’t want children, so in one case the writers/producers had her left in charge of an infant that had swallowed a key to a safety deposit box. Normally Brennon would have nothing to do with a child for that length of time. If it was her choice she would never had done it, and she would never have grown as a character – but the choice wasn’t hers and the resulting adventure forced her to change some of her notions concerning children and how she related to them.
The other aspect of a serial character is that things have to happen to them. That is why many serials are mysteries, or cop stories. Detectives and officers, private investigators, bounty hunters, secret angents, some lawyers, forensic scientists working with law enforcement agencies, and other professionals consulting with the police (like Alex Deleware who is a psychologist) have interesting, dangerous, and difficult situations handed to them all the time. In supernatural stories sometimes it’s what you do, other times it’s who you know, that causes adventure to stumble into your life. Harry Dresden, Jim Butcher’s cynical wizard, has advertised himself publically as a wizard for hire (helps that he does consult with the police on occasion) so people come to him when things get weird. Anita Blake (Laurel K. Hamilton’s heroine) is a federally licensed vampire executioner, and an animator (she raises zombies), and both jobs hand her some weird and often deadly situations. As her powers and connections increase she catches the attention of more of the bad things in the supernatural community and so success brings new adventures without her seeking them out, and without her wanting them to find her.
You need to place your character in a situation or job where trouble of one kind or another will easily and logically find them. “In the wrong place at the wrong time” may work for one book, whether it’s a stand-alone or one book in the series (I mean everyone is unlucky sometime or other) but too many times and it’s unbelievable (no one is that unlucky).
The supernatural community offers so many more opportunities. Anna Latham, the main character in Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series is an ordinary girl with extraordinary powers and the only reason “trouble” finds her is because she’s married to the Enforcer of her werewolf pack and it’s his job to deal with the trouble that threatens the pack. She goes along because her powers are often beneficial and that provides a good story.
In summary – take an interesting, real character, give them a job that places them in interesting situations and some friends, family, and rivals, and see how they grow.