FAQ: How to Write Character Arcs in a Series

FAQ: How to Write Character Arcs in a Series

“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

Creating Character ArcsYou can approach character arcs in a series in either of the two following ways:

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).

Star Wars NightAngel Brent Weeks King Raven Stephen Lawhead Hunger Games Susanne Collins

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.

Thor Dark World Master and Commander Aubrey Maturin Patrick OBrian Medicus Roman Empire Ruth Downie

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.

Mark Hamill Luke Skywalker Star Wars A New Hope The Empire Strikes Back Return of the Jedi

 

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?

Character Arcs in a Series

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I had been wondering for a while if it was acceptable to do a different character arc for each book in a series, each arc being a portion of the bigger Lie the character needs to overcome to fight the final, climactic battle in the last book. So in mine, the main character’s Truth is that she needs faith in people and in God. This is going to be what she needs to make it through the final battle. Her first book arc is about learning to trust other people, her second might be about finding God, and the third might be a culmination of the two, as she’s going to end up being a political leader in a nation fighting over religion. I was hoping this could work out, and I think it can. =D Yay!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’ve totally got a handle on this! The individual Lies are all great progressions that build up to the final Lie.

  2. Great article, Katie! Of course, Shazam!, I have to be the odd ball that does both #1 and #2 in my current Tracking Jane series. It’s a tough trick to manage, and I hope it’s panned out OK!

  3. Hi Katie – this one is hard! Especially if the story is not pre-plotted in its entirety. I have a 3-book series where the overarching arc wasn’t really apparent until it was revealed in Book 3 (and I had no idea that I would use something from Book 1 as the trigger for it!).

    As a new author, I think this was natural – not to think ahead so much. But now that I’m looking to extend the “trilogy” and continue the series with the same characters and a new story, my “main” arc is now exploited … so what next?

    For example, if Books 1-3 are the X Chronicles; Books 4-5/6 could be the Y Chronicles; Books 7-9 The Z Chronicles etc, a bit like Raymond E Feist’s title progressions, so I’m happy to set up a new arc & stories, but it feels contrived!

    Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If there isn’t a logical point of progression for your character’s arc (e.g., in the Extended Galaxy of Star Wars book sequels, Luke faced new challenges in fighting off the temptations Dark Side), then don’t hesitate to simply give him a flat arc. Although the Thor movies are far from perfect, one think I really do like about them is how the first movie employed an obvious change arc, which then set up the character’s ability to be the impact character in the next movie by standing upon the Truth he had already learned.

      • Hi Katie – thanks for the help! (Sorry, my thank you is delayed as I didn’t get the notification this time)

        That makes sense – and I suppose the flat arc might then morph to another change arc at the end of the next “trilogy” when the protagonist uncovers a greater awareness about her world?

        Either way, plotting/outlining is essential (for me – I don’t know how those pantsers do it! I am full of admiration if they can do it with minimal drafts!).

        Thanks again,

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yep. Really, the variations are endless. Whatever works for your story and your character.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          As far as wanting theme and character arc (things both informed by planning) you are very spot on Robert, knowing the story in advance it is essential.

  4. thomas h cullen says:

    As much as I am Croyan, and he is me, existing with his daughter at my mind and heart’s centre, I could’ve never contemplated writing the two of them across more than just one narrative:

    I’ve even written a short biographical note for them, allowing them their peaceful existence all the way to their deaths.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As popular and lucrative as series are, it’s important to recognize when a story is better told as a standalone. Always better to serve the story’s purpose rather than compromise it for commercial reasons.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The situation. The settings. The motivations, etc: there wouldn’t ever be something to think of after these.

  5. So unbelievably convenient of you to post this at this point in time. My WIP is a 3 book overarching trilogy, and everything you described is what I have been mulling over.

    Bang on what I needed to read, as this will help me set my thoughts in stone.

    Thank you very much, Katie.

  6. Great post! Right now, I’m plotting my series in such a way that each of my characters gets a single book dedicated to him/her, wherein they go through a single character arc. The characters are connected in such a way that they’re all living in a single setting (sort of like a big compound or apartment building), and the lies that they’re going to be struggling with all circle around a single theme: about being alienated, stereotyped, or outcast because you’re of a different race, despite the fact that you were born in/grew up in that country.

    It’s kind of a diasporic series with a sci-fi twist to it. I guess my biggest concern is getting readers to love all of the characters that they would be willing to read through the series even though the POV character changes in each book.

    It’s structured in such a way that, for example:

    Book 1 focuses on one character’s mistrust of people with mixed blood in their genetic make-up, that he doesn’t believe they should be a part of their “pure-blood” community.

    Book 2 focuses on another character’s stereotyping of the “pure-bloods” as over-zealous, snobbish, arrogant, etc. But once she gets to know them a little better, the stereotype falls apart, and she realizes that people are more complex than they seem at first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you treat your books as, in essence, standalone books with the same responsibilities as any standalone book (to make readers love the protagonist), you should be fine. It’s an interesting approach with the potential to reap a lot of dividends.

  7. Lajos Egri talked about arcs in The Art of Creative Writing, mentioning that an arc should have baby-steps along the way. Between love and hate, comes annoyance, tolerance, dislike, anger, etc. In a longer series, or an episodic series, I see no reason why each baby-step couldn’t be an episode or book in a series, each an arc in itself along with whatever other story or interior arcs exist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. The longer the series, the longer (and often more convincing) the progression of the character will be.

  8. I definitely think doing both is best. You get so much more depth and satisfaction, IMHO, that way. Of course, it somewhat depends on genre too. But I like character focused stories that really dig into the characters’ psychology.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      More is almost always better when it comes to character arcs. Hard to get too much of a good thing with these little beauties!

  9. In the mystery series, I aim to have an overarching story line about the main character adjusting to his new life as a widower, ex-cop and as a reluctant P.I. In each installment he copes with a new “problem” – a crime – with the help of his best friend. As well, several supporting characters keep popping up to challenge the protagonist or provide assistance or the occasional comic relief. I view this as one long story told in episodes, like the Aubrey-Maturin series. I like what L.E. Hollia posted. Many arcs, great and small. Thanks for the great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Aubrey/Maturin is probably my all-time favorite series. It’s such a brilliant evolution of character, even though it doesn’t offer an obvious serial arc.

  10. Another great post K.M.!

    When dealing with character arc, I usually go about it when planning out my story’s structure. I am a big fan of the seven point story structure method and one of the first steps is to think about the resolution of the story.

    Begin with the end in mind.

    Basically I line out all the attributes that I envision of my main character at the end of my story. Maybe he is now brave, heroic, and not too trusting of others. Once I get a good picture of who he is now, then I start at the beginning of my story with the opposite in mind.

    If he is brave in the end then I start him as timid and weak. If he is not too trusting in the end, I have him gullible and naive in the beginning.

    Having this information mapped out ahead of time allows me to think about what needs to happen (conflict) in between those two points — beginning and end — in order for this arc to occur.

    Thanks for all the help you have provided over the years to writers like myself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great way (the best way, IMO) to chart a character arc. If you know where you want the character to end up, it’s easy to figure out where he needs to begin.

  11. Houston Howard’s “Make Your Story Really Stinkin’ Big” is a great resource for building a series and included a section on approaching character arc over a series similar to your approach here, but since it’s a book, he expounded more on the concept. If you haven’t read it and plan to write a series (especially one requiring world-building) I highly recommend it.

  12. This is really helpful thank you! I’ve been contemplating character arcs for two series I’ve been working on lately. I’m definitely going to be looking at this. ^ ^

  13. … or overarching aknowledge of the power of evil: Harry Potter discovers a worse evil in each book!

  14. Maria Thomas says:

    Do you think it’s possible to write a negative character arc in a series? I’m writing a tragedy and would love to turn it into a series, but would a tragic ending be disappointing for a reader after long awaiting the last book of the series?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally possible. Whether or not readers are disappointed in the end is all about whether or not you’ve properly set up their expectations through tone and foreshadowing. If they’re *expecting* a happy ending and don’t get one, that’s when you’re likely to have a mutiny on your hands.

      • Re tragic endings: I just read a book that was beautiful and beautifully set up, with all sorts of foreshadowing that the ending would not be good for the protagonist. Sure enough, she dies at the end as a “sacrifice”. In spite of the author doing everything correctly and providing good foreshadowing, I was really flattened by the ending, because it made the whole book pointless–the plot was, she was trying to escape being a sacrifice. Okay, so it was her choice, she was being really noble and doing it for love … that didn’t matter to me, because I was holding on to that spark of hope that she might survive.

        This is for Maria Thomas:

        You will always get readers with sparks of hope: Especially ones who have had their own tragedies. Ultimately, you have to write to please yourself and be true to your story. For every reader like me, who can’t bear to read another book by that author no matter what (or how good she is), there will be lots more who really enjoy vicarious tragedy. How do I know this? My friends all love tragic movies and mini-series: As far as I know, I’m the only one who can’t handle them.

        That’s strictly from a reader perspective.

  15. Very helpful!

    I, like a number of Indie authors, busted out and wrote a book. Structure? What’s that and who needs it? Character Arc?..well, kinda. Plot…can I make it up as I go?

    Looking back at all the flaws and imperfections of my first book, I got a lot ‘right’—meaning, no doubt, that the structure of storytelling is intuitive, like the Golden Mean….but it is not so easy to actually do.

    Those Voices Inside My Head…my Characters—it’s like herding kittens!

    Your Outlining and Story Structure book, and the Character Arc posts are so dang helpful, I feel energized out of my dithering…which is what writing becomes without the structure.

    Wandering from scene to scene, rearranging events, cut that, paste here…until I am so sick of it and confused I want to go be a welder, or something….

    So…the Character Arc in the Sequel…the above discussion is very helpful in illuminating the prospects of a continuous Character Arc, vs the individual book.

    As in ‘real life’, it’s a combo of the overarching Character Arc of our lives vs the smaller ‘everyday’ arcs mirroring the larger, as told by specific events

    thanks a bunch! For the two books, the Arc posts…the Hero’s Journey in Storytelling….all if it!
    mary

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! It’s very much like a mirror of real life. I’m so glad you’ve found the series and the books useful!

      • Now I am wondering about POVs…

        I used multiple POVs in my first book, and it was very cumbersome for a lot of reasons, and led to less character development for each of them.

        For Book 2 I want to use a combo of First Person and 3rd person omnipotent.

        And so guess where I am headed?

        “What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV”

        What a fab site you run! thanks…
        -mary

  16. Thanks once more–really helpful for my trilogy. Reassurance that I am on the right track with my character arcs–and opened up a huge insight for one of my characters.

  17. In my books, my character Amelia has to deal with two flaws, and overcome them, and the flaws are lack of self-confidence and not trusting her instincts. The main theme is good versus evil, and Samantha represents a very dark person that wants to protect her city and loved ones, but does it by killing and torturing criminals for pure enjoyment, and Amelia knows that murder and torture is wrong, and she doesn’t like that Samantha enjoys doing those things. As for Victor, he is confident and wants to turn people into super-soldiers against their own will and clone them so he could have two armies to do what he wants them to do and doesn’t care who stands in his way, and Samantha might actually try to kill Victor and might enjoy doing it, or torture him if her friend Raven was kidnapped, or if StarGirl was kidnapped, though StarGirl and Raven don’t like what Samantha does. They think that what she does is wrong.

  18. I am trying to create the character arc of a self delusional God. A man who views himself as Good and is revealed to be lying. The switch comes at the end of the first book. Where would you take it? Looking

  19. This is probably obvious, but…

    I’m thinking that splitting a character arc over several books must break the connection between arc and plot some.

    You still need to have three acts in each book, plus all the important plot points, right?

    You have to separate the internal and external conflicts, otherwise, in a four book series, you won’t even leave the character’s normal world in the first book and it will end with the first plot point… that sounds a little slow for my taste…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      True. It’s all relative. Each book must be contained unto itself, with its *own* Normal World, etc., so the subsequent Normal Worlds are a matter of degree. You can see how the Harry Potter stories did this, as Harry grew farther and farther away from his Muggle-world self as the series progressed.

  20. Hannah Killian says:

    I’m thinking of writing a trilogy that involves an overreaching positive character arc. The idea stemmed from my fantasy that’s inspired by Romeo and Juliet. It’s about a prince who betrays his country, and then, right after he does it, he finds out he’s engaged to the princess from the country his country has been at strife with for centuries. They get married, and there’s a lot of neutrality going on, until there’s something there that wasn’t there before. (What is love?) He also tries to keep his betrayal under wraps, but as the story progresses, he starts feeling really guilty about it. The truth comes out in the end, which opens a whole new can of worms because now the entire continent is in danger.

    The second book starts with his wife visiting him in the dungeon. I guess you could say he’s offered a shot at redemption, because they go on a quest to stop the can of worms from spreading too far. At the end of this book, something happens that really impacts him concerning his betrayal. That ‘something’ being the birth of his daughter. (Which is actually a bit humorous, because he has to help deliver the baby, since they’re out in a cabin the middle of nowhere. At one point he quips, “But I’m not a doctor, I’m a prince!”) (But of course, he helps anyways)

    In book three, they make it back home, there’s a big battle, and then it ends either on coronation day, which takes place a year later, or a few years later than that. On the one hand, I want it to be on coronation day, but on the other, I want it to be a few years later, because then the audience will get to se the other two children they have. I’m guessing coronation day will be more impactful?

    I’ve also never written a redemption arc before, so that’ll be new. Actually, come to think of it, I wonder if, in my current WIP, the hero’s father is getting a bit of a redemption arc. And if the cousin is getting a bit of a negative arc? Hmmm. . .time to write!

  21. Your book about character arcs is one of the best books for writers. Really. Good job 🙂 I love it. It helped me a lot.

    I have a question about side characters and a book series.
    Is it possible to create a character arc for a side character that begins in the first book and ends in the last one?
    I thought about creating a character arc for the love interest in my series. For my protagonist I create one character arc in every single book but for the love interest I intend to create one character arc over the four books. Do you think this is a good idea or is it confusing for readers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Certainly. However, you’ll either want to only “hint” at the minor character’s arc in the early book, or make sure you’re giving him enough screentime to do justice to all the early beats.

      • Good to know.
        Yes, this character will have enough screentime. Also because he is the love interest and his character arc sort of conflicts the character arc of the protagonist.

        Thank you 🙂

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