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. 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!

  2. 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 🙂

  3. Davey Righteous says:

    Fantastic article, extremely informative. Not only great stand-alone advice, but great leads and references of stuff to check out! I enjoyed audio of “How to Write Character Arcs”, but I wish there was a way to make the media play at 1.25x or 1.5x. Isn’t there a rule that all media players have this functionality included? There should be! 😉

    Great article!

  4. Great article, K.M., as always, and timely for yours truly to boot. There is a link to the LIE which doesn’t go anywhere, however. Can you point me in the right direction? The concept is intriguing.

  5. That last header really got me thinking. For my current WIP, I have an idea for a series with about six characters, one book focusing on each. What I’ve decided to do is create an overarching series Truth/Lie that all the characters’ arcs circle back to, a series arc for each character, and parts of that series arc in each book (the book focusing on their character being where the majority of the changing happens). I’m not sure if I’ll write the series and if I do that it’ll end well, but I’m excited to experiment!

  6. I’m struggling with the character archs in a trilogy that has two Main Characters that need well developed ones.
    I wonder … Can I have different kinds of archs in different books in a trilogy, and still have one overreaching arch for the trilogy?

    MC One has an overreaching Positive Change Arch. I’m thinking of making book 1 a “small positive change”, book 2 a flat arch, and book three the end result of the overreaching positive arch.

    MC Two has also an overreaching Positive Change Arch, but I’d like him to struggle more. Right now I’m considering giving him a disillusion change in book one (since the truth he has to learn here is a grim one). Can I believingly have him recover from that and have a positive change arch in book two, and then finish off with a flat (or ‘small positive’) arch in book three?

  7. I’m confused on writing character arcs in a series. I’m trying to go through your character arcs workbook again, but I don’t get it — if plot and character are linked, how is it possible to have an overarching character arc?

    If Book 1 has to have a Normal World, but my protagonist doesn’t come out of her Normal World until the 75% of the way through Book 1 based on her overarching character arc timing, does she have to have *two* Normal Worlds? Or am I missing something?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You can’t apply the structure of a single book too literally to the structure of a series. Think of it more like a guideline. Also remember that the Normal World isn’t always a literal physical setting. It’s specifically a mindset about the conflict. The character will only enter into a full understanding of the main conflict by the end of Book 1 (usually). That, in itself, is a graduated departure from a symbolic Normal World, even if the character has long since left the physical Normal World.

  8. Just Another Writer says:

    In my “series”, I have a prequel and a present-day book with the prequel being sequenced after the present-day book. How should I incorporate my character arc now?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Prequels necessarily come before events of previous books in the chronology. Often, they occur outside the strict arc/plot of the main series. They present a good opportunity for exploring the backstory Ghosts motivating the arc in the main story.

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