Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Launching a series is golden. It’s that moment in Minesweeper when you hit the right square and a safety zone unfurls. You have eager readers for your next book. You have an agent waiting to read your manuscript. You have characters and backdrops for a long, long time. Or… do you?
It’s not easy to create a protagonist – or even a small cluster of central characters – who can keep readers’ interest and flex and grow through all the plot variations your series will take.
Characterization is already tough. We write characters and wonder if anyone will like them/care about them/appropriately loathe them/accept them as realistic. Creating a compelling series character is all of this and more. It requires a lot of foresight and (ugh) record-keeping. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to it.
The foundation of your series will include setting and plot, but these tend to be pretty flexible. You can send characters on trips or even compel them to move. You can bend the plot to take the characters where they need to go. But the characters themselves, once they are people, are people. It’s hard to change who they are at the core and not reek of inauthenticity.
If you build a series on a strong character, your series has a shot at survival. To lay a solid foundation, your central characters should have…
You’ve heard people tell you that your characters (or your protagonists, anyway) must be likable. Your readers are taking a journey with your main character(s). The only thing worse than someone you dislike is taking a long trip with someone you dislike. So I stand by the advice I gave you in my quest novel post.
But if you’re not writing a quest, scrap the idea that your leads have to be likable. What they need is draw. Anna Karenina is disloyal, selfish, melodramatic, and doesn’t even love her own daughter. Yet she’s intoxicating. She’s the sensuous and riveting aura of the book, and she lingers long after you’ve put it down. Amy Elliott Dunne of Gone Girl certainly seems likable until…well, no plot spoilers here…until it’s obvious that she’s not. She’s so gripping people have bent their ethical codes over backwards to accommodate her.If your series characters have draw, the reader doesn’t need to like them.Click To Tweet
Take John Green on this:
I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.
Suck people in with your characters. Leave an impression. Make their brains go ‘ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr’ (bonus points if you can pronounce that). Likability is just one of many ways to do that.
Side note: make your characters ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr-worthy to male and female readers. Check with someone of the opposite gender to get a different perspective.
Characters who are going to survive a series must have perseverance. Characters who start out strong (Katniss) have the personality and drive to handle long-term plots and inspire readers. Those who lack fortitude at the beginning of a series (Neo) develop it pretty early. This evolution is part of their sustainability in the long run. This is true of single installment works, too – think of George Bailey’s long-term suffering or the total tenacity of Eowyn.
Every hero needs an Achilles heel. It might be the cliché-but-we-still-love-it egomania of Han Solo or the I’m-a-pirate-and-technically-I-kill-people sex appeal of Jack Sparrow. It might be much subtler; think Percy Jackson, whose only flaw is that he’s too loyal and nearly compromises everything for it. Sometimes that fatal flaw is also a character’s strength, as in Captain Fantastic or The Great Gatsby. It could be a vice, a secret, a disability, an addiction, a curse, pride, callousness, fear, recklessness, promiscuity, anger, neurosis, a bad reputation, overprotectiveness, love, selfishness, erratic behavior, immaturity, or really just about anything.
I’ve heard advice against making protagonists dishonest or disloyal or cowardly, etc. This really depends on your genre and your series. Overcoming pathological dishonesty might be part of your character’s journey. Remember: compelling, not necessarily agreeable.
Good times to write characters with no flaws:
- In classic literature (see the portrayal of Maria in the in The Sound of Music). Seeing as you’re still living, you’re not writing classic literature. Don’t worry about this one.
- Humor (see Jeeves in Jeeves & Wooster). Bonus points if you can tell me in the comments if Jeeves ever made a mistake he couldn’t fix.
If there’s one thing your character really needs, it’s a complexity. Without it, every installation of a series is more or less the same. Or you’ll find yourself scrambling to add more backstory to justify things that you want to do with your character down the road.Plan your series protagonist’s backstory way ahead of time – you’ll need it later on.Click To Tweet
Keep the backstory detailed but open-ended enough to give yourself maneuverability. For example, Brodie is an American born in Japan to American parents, an art dealer with a struggling antiques shop in San Francisco, and half-owner of a security firm built by his father in Tokyo. He’s also the father of a six-year-old girl. All of this gives me plenty to work with. He has the need to travel so I’m not pinned down with my setting. Two careers provide a multitude of opportunities for trouble; and he’s a single parent, which offers the chance for emotional exploration. Each of my books takes advantage of Brodie’s backstory.
If you arrive organically at a thrilling but dead-end destination in a standalone novel, great! Super satisfying. If you inadvertently do that with what was going to be a series, you just shot yourself in the foot. You need to know that wherever each book takes you, that will not be the end of the journey. You have to plan ahead. Here’s how:
Give your characters short- and long-term problems. For an easy and convincing example, see most dystopian literature, like The Hunger Games. Short-term goal: don’t die. Long-term goals: overthrow the system and rebuild society. For a really enthralling example, please go forth and read The Kingkiller Chronicle series if you haven’t already. It’s not only too complex to unpack here, I also don’t want to spoil it for you.Ensure your series protagonist has short- and long-term goals.Click To Tweet
Friends and foes
Have a lot of people in the wings. There should be plenty of support (the fellowship that travels with Frodo) and potential for different antagonists to arise (from Daniel Shaw to Alexei Volkoff to a good-guy-gone-wrong in Chuck). It might help to introduce a lost character or two (a brother presumed dead or someone who’s missing and can be introduced several books in).
What does each character want? What are their weaknesses, and how can they grow? What key events will influence the characters and how? What are the defining relationships between characters? What will a character discover along the way?
A character needs core consistency (no changes so big that the reader doesn’t believe them), but also plenty of room to grow. This might happen by virtue of growing up (Thea in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark) or through unavoidable circumstances (the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room).
True, there have been successful exceptions to this in literary history (like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes). But note that even the BBC’s contemporary rendering of Sherlock Holmes caters to a contemporary demand for complexity. This Sherlock isn’t immutable. He surprises you.
Speaking of surprises, trace room for the unexpected into your plot and character arcs. Again, don’t force it; it should feel organic. A reader should be able to look back and go, “Ack! I should have seen that coming!” Look for clichés in your genre and avoid them. If you do go with a stereotype, add unexpected value. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus closely resembles Sherlock Holmes, but Rankin fleshes out the stories with rich setting details and phenomenally complex plots.
To ensure harmony between character development and authenticity, you’re going to want a full profile and backstory for every character you write. Not all this info will go into the books themselves, but it’s important to have it and have it written down. In creating a real person, family history, personality quirks, health, appearance, likes, dislikes, vices, virtues, world-view, all of it will shape what a character will and won’t do. If you don’t create this profile, it’s very difficult to build a believable character…because the character is still just a character, not yet a person.
Building a series
Follow the above advice and you’ll have a cast of real characters with myriad relationships and goals that can sustain as many stories as your readers can take.
A final piece of advice – while it’s always best to plan with real intentions in mind, it can also be beneficial to simply leave yourself room to work. If you write a genuinely long-lived series, you’ll end up being thankful for any nook or cranny you left in your character’s past. Does it hurt your story to add a failed marriage, former career, or disowned family member? Even if you’re not going to use it now, consciously including it in your character’s biography may give you more places to go in future.
Now I’d like to hear from you: who are your favorite (and least favorite) series characters, and what do you think makes them work?
For more great advice on this subject, check out How To Write Compelling Character Arcs In A Series and How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading.