Writing a Book Series – Character Arcs

Good to be back after a brief hiatus. Juggling revisions on one book, my own editing on another, and actually writing the third has been a hair wringing task, (lots of new gray hairs) but I’m still on track to meet deadlines, thankfully, and, am currently reviewing galley proofs for book release July 15!!

This was a tough post to write because characters are such fundamental parts of our stories. And how to make them grow and change over a series even tougher. I don’t claim to be an expert, and am sharing my learning process. One thing is for sure, nothing turns me away from a series more than, after the third or fourth book, the protagonist doesn’t learn or grow. They become plot devices. Argh.

I began writing my necromancer book when my protagonist, Ruby, invaded my head, told me about her power over the dead and how she struggled with it, and I got excited, started writing, and thought, well this is a story of how she masters her power.

Well, yes, but no. As I explored her character more, I realized it was also a story about how she changes her beliefs about herself, her world, and her power. Even more exciting.

What is character growth? Change? External events can drive the character forward (more of a plot driven scenario). Changes in the character’s skills and knowledge take the arc a bit deeper, but deepen it more, and you get the internal changes, the beliefs, that make the story more interesting. I always loved the interplay between Scully and Mulder in The X-Files. Okay, I just loved the damn show. But Scully really changes, in many ways, more than Mulder. She starts out very scientific and skeptical and slowly over the series, she faces death, kidnapping, possible alien experimentation, and she becomes a believer. But it wasn’t just belief in aliens, but in herself, in her relationship with Mulder. At times, she had to convince him to keep believing.

So how to approach character change over a series? Before continuing, I must insert disclaimer here again.

I’m speaking from my experience of writing my series and what worked or didn’t work for me. Everyone has different writing styles and different stories. There are also many different types of book series. My series is set in the same world throughout, with the same characters, and has a major story arc that will only get resolved in Book Three.

The latter is important because this discussion centers on a character’s growth over a series of books. Think Jim Butcher’s Dresden series or Kelley Armstrong’s Woman of the Underworld characters, such as the werewolf Elena.

Ruby’s growth revolves around her ever growing and changing necromancer skills, her past, and the past history of necromancers.

In Necromancer’s Seduction, Ruby is seduced by her power and by her love interest. How does she respond to the seduction? How does it affect her beliefs? The book ends with Ruby making a major decision that has very important consequences for her growth, but also for the plot. The second and third books begin with her dealing with the consequences of her decision from the previous book. Did she make the right decision? Did the end justify the means? And how does the decision impact her relationships with the other characters? And her relationship with her power?

I loved writing about her struggles with her decisions. How maybe her decisions were not the best, but they seemed like the best decision at the time and were certainly justifiable, the lesser of two evils, so to speak. Either way, her decisions lead her in the direction I need her to go for the next book. (Maybe not exactly the direction she would have chosen, but I’m mean like that J )

So: external change, event leads to new capability/new use of power creates new circumstances/consequences results in change in belief/decision.

Ruby goes through this cycle in each book. She explores a new necromancer power, related to the plot, which leads to a change in belief and a decision, but with each book, the stakes go up, the skill she learns and uses is more difficult and leads to more significant and perilous consequences. The advantage to writing a series is the author can explore different stages of that growth.

Here are some questions to frame this journey:

What propels the hero on his or her journey? Why does s/he need to go on the journey? Does the hero have a mentor or someone to talk to? What are the mentor’s motives? Why does the hero keep going forward? What tools does s/he have at his/her disposal?  Did the hero fail or succeed? Why do we care if the hero is successful or not? What was the hero’s major struggle in each book? With his/her power? Personal or romance?

Lots of questions.

In addition to exploring different facets to the heroine’s growth, a series also provides space to show the hero faltering. Book Two has both Ruby, and her main love interest, Ewan, both struggling immensely. External forces, split loyalties, or decisions made in order to defeat the bad guys drive them apart. Ruby stumbles quite a bit as she navigates her new powers and other things I won’t reveal, which lead her to commit an act that is morally questionable. She comes to terms with her actions in Book Three.

Ewan is quite confident in Necromancer’s Seduction, and over the three books, he has to break down and reform himself before he can be the demon he wants to be for Ruby, and to help her in the end. If he doesn’t go through that process, he will not be at that strong place, mentally or emotionally, to help her.

The relationship with the villain also plays an important role in the hero or heroine’s growth. In the beginning of the story, the villain has more choices and tools at his disposal, which makes him more powerful. It’s the opposite for the hero or heroine. Every scene and plot point strips away options from the hero until the black moment. At the black moment, the hero’s belief, ego or some cherished value is destroyed. Then a new choice presents itself that wasn’t available before because the hero wasn’t ready to make that leap of faith (Saito to Cobb in Inception—“Don’t you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” Love it!)

Ultimately our hero prevails because, while the hero grows and embraces new beliefs that drives her/him to take actions that ultimately lead to success, the villain adheres to inflexible and intolerant beliefs that keeps him/her from growing, and unable to take the actions or make the right decisions, which lead to his/her demise.

Speaking of the devil, each book in a series can have an ultimate black moment, but the series as a whole should have a major dark moment where the hero makes a choice that would have been unthinkable or unavailable in some way at the beginning of the series. Harry Potter, in the end, comes to the realization, the belief, he is a Horcrux, and accepts, understand he has to die in order to kill Voldemort. Fortunately, he doesn’t.

On a side note, I’m a big fan of the television show Game of Thrones. What I like is how some characters begin as unsympathetic and bad, then they suffer various experiences which test their beliefs, and they become better. Like Jaime Lannister. He friggin pushed Bran off a window when Bran saw him having sex with his sister, Cersei. Jaime starts out as conceited and ruthless, but he changes, and we begin to like him, or I do, at least. I need some new characters to like as my favorites keep getting killed off, sigh, Red Wedding, sigh Robb Stark.

How have you seen, treated character growth? How has the villain helped or hindered the hero’s growth?

2 thoughts on “Writing a Book Series – Character Arcs

  1. Loved, loved, LOVED the blog this morning. As another series writer, I commend you on watching and learning as your characters grow (and change). Yes, outside influences due help bring about these changes but not always… isn’t that how we as humans grow – by experience and self discovery? Why would your character be any different? It is exciting to see them grow, making mistakes along the way. 5 stars on the blog my friend!

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