Yesterday I wrote about what the story arc looks like between an individual book and a book series. Today, I wanted to touch on another element about writing a series that is a bit different than writing an individual book: how do you handle all the characters?
It actually isn’t THAT different when you consider the overarching story arc from yesterday’s post, but it can be a bit tricky breaking all the old “rules” you stood by when you were working on your individual novel. Here are a few of the biggest differences between working on a novel versus working on a series of novels based on character development.
You do not want to introduce all your characters at the same time.
When you’re writing a stand-alone novel, every single character that has anything to do with the primary story arc is introduced in that single book. When you’re writing a series, you have several books in which to meet these characters. Writers just starting out to build a series have a habit of throwing all their characters into the first book because that’s what they had to do when they were writing a stand-alone novel. Now, though, you only want to introduce characters who play an important role in the individual story arc for that book. The first time I rewrote Martyrs, I removed several characters who were technically still involved with the major story arc but didn’t need to be introduced until further down the line.
Your main character must experience several levels of growth.
It’s no secret that one of the main points of a novel is to bring your primary character through some kind of personal growth. The same is true in a series of novels, but that growth comes in layers. Not only must your main character grow from the beginning of the series to the end, but he must also grow from the beginning to end of each book. This seems really obvious, but I’ve read series where there is little to no character growth–emotionally or intellectually–until the final book. Or, worse, they slam all the growth into book one and then have the character flatline in the subsequent novels. Remember, like each individual book has to have a story arc of its own, it has to have a character development arc of its own, too.
You have more time to get people emotionally invested in your characters.
The best thing about a novel series is that you have a lot more time to get people really emotionally connected to your characters. That’s one of the reasons series of novels tend to have larger fan bases than individual, stand-alone novels. By the end of The Hunger Games, die-hard fans really, honestly feel what Katniss is going through. All the shit that happens to her is more poignant and punch-you-in-the-face. That being said, you need to keep an eye on what is happening to your character at what point in the series and pay close attention to whether or not your audience is emotionally ready for that. In other words, you don’t want to kill off a character no one has any emotional investment in.
Which means you ALSO have more time to make them dislike your character.
However, this increased time for emotional investment can also really damage the relationships your readers have with your characters. If you make too drastic a character change or if your readers don’t feel like they’ve been properly led into believing why a character is behaving a certain way, it can kill their connectedness. Unfortunately, this happens to me a lot. There’s a reason I tend to dislike the main character in books I read. A good example, to me, is Harry Potter. In the fifth book, after seeing Cedric die, Harry is kind of a dick to everyone he hangs out with. I know, I know, “But, MC, he’s a hormonal teenager and he had to watch someone die!” I get how that can be emotionally traumatizing, but Harry’s lashing out and overall shitty treatment of even his friends violated the character I had been led to believe in up to that point.
The characters are the most important vessel in your writing. Without strong characters, your writing hardly matters. Your plot hardly matters. If you can’t get people emotionally invested in what’s going on in your world, you’ve lost them from page one.