“How should I write character arcs in a series?” This is the question I’ve been getting probably more than any other of late. These days, more stories than not are told as part of multi-book series–everything from trilogies to thirty-plus installments with no intended end in sight. Up to now, I’ve been addressing character arcs primarily within the structure of a single story, using the important structural moments in a classic Three-Act plot to anchor the timing. But what if your character’s arc spans more than just three acts and one book?
2 Ways to Include Character Arcs in a Series
1. One Character Arc for the Entire Series
If your series is telling one seamless, overarching story–as in, say, the Star Wars trilogy, Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy, Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, or Susanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy–then you will also probably want to choose to implement one overarching character arc throughout the series. The character arc that begins in Book 1 won’t be completed until the end of Book 3 (or whatever).
2. Multiple Character Arcs Throughout the Series
If each installment in your series is a complete and distinct episode–as in the Marvel movies series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and Ruth Downie’s Roman Empire series–then you may choose to implement a new character arc for each book. In this approach, the character will encounter a new Lie in each book, which will have be overcome by the end of the episode. The Lie will either be completely new and separate from previous adventures, or it will build upon the character’s previous experiences. (For example, in his first movie, Thor undergoes a positive change arc, which then sets up the Truth on which his flat arc in the second movie is based.) This approach is pretty intuitive, since it basically uses the same formula as any standalone book with a standalone character arc.
How to Structure Character Arcs in an Overarching Series
If you’re writing an overarching series, you’ll start by approaching your character’s arc just as you would if you were writing a standalone book. All of the important structural moments (which we’ve discussed previously in series on positive change, flat, and negative change arcs) will need to be in place over the course of the story. The only difference is that the timing is spread out significantly.
Over-Arching Character Arcs in a Trilogy
Trilogies are comparatively easy to adapt to overarching character arcs, since their three-book format closely mirrors the three acts in a standalone book (with the first act being the character’s time of comparatively unrewarding enslavement to his Lie, the second being his time of discovering the Truth and growing away from the Lie, and the third being his claiming of his new empowerment via the Truth). The original Star Wars trilogy is an especially great and obvious example of how this works.
However, keep in mind that in a standalone book, the Second Act is twice as long as either the First or Third Acts. This does not mean the second book in your trilogy has to be twice as long as the other two. But it does mean the three acts of the overarching story won’t neatly divide into one act per book. The second act will begin three-quarters of the way through the first book and end a quarter of the way through the third. Even still, adjusting the timing of the character’s development (and the overall structure in general) is comparatively easy to figure out in a trilogy.
Over-Arching Character Arcs in a Series of Four Books (or More)
If you’re writing a series of fixed length that spans more than three books, the same basic principles apply, but you’ll have to think a little harder about adjusting the timing in order to get the arc to play out smoothly over the course of the entire series.
A four-book series is actually just as easy as a trilogy, since the Three-Act structure divides neatly into four sections (First Act, First Half of the Second Act, Second Half of Second Act, Third Act). But the more books you add after that, the more complicated the timing and pacing gets.
Bonus Tip: Use Series to Add Even More Depth to Your Character Arcs
So far, this is all pretty straightforward, right? Either you stretch your character arc over all the books in your series, or you make a new arc for each book. But what if (shazam!) you could do both?
Even in an overarching series, every book needs to be complete unto itself: three acts, beginning, middle, end, opening dramatic question, ending with a resolution answering that question. Even though the main plot–and the main character arc–stretches beyond each individual book, you still have the opportunity to develop isolated aspects unique to each book.
How does that work for character arcs?
Let’s say you’ve got an overarching character arc for your trilogy, based on a big Lie your character believes about being a coward. He’s going to be working on that Lie throughout the trilogy and slowly embracing the Truth that bravery is a choice, not an inborn virtue. By itself, that’s probably enough to successfully float your series. But why not amp it up? Why not add layers and depth?
Each book in your series can be more than just a building block in the structure of the overarching arc. They can also be smaller, supporting, standalone arcs of their own. Each book can create a smaller arc, based on a smaller Lie–one that will ultimately contribute to your character’s ability to overcome the big, overarching Lie. For example, Book 1 might feature a “mini” Lie about how doing brave acts (e.g., stopping a mugging) is a task that belongs only to socially designated heroes (e.g., the cops), while Book 2’s Lie might be that fear is tantamount to cowardice.
Book 3 might feature a Lie about how we’re not responsible for doing brave things if we can remain in ignorance about the need for them. But since Book 3 will also be the final culmination of the overarching Lie, you may want to focus all your energy there for a more seamless effect.
Just as character arcs can bring untold depth and resonance to your standalone stories, they will also lift your series out of mediocrity and into memorability. Whatever they demand in complicated pacing and timing, they give back tenfold in thematic strength and character development. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile by using character arcs in a series. Your readers will adore you for it.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever contemplated writing character arcs in a series?
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