Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Character arcs are challenging enough in a single novel, but trying to write a character over multiple books? It can be tough and frustrating to even know how to start. But if you’ll put in a little extra time to master the basic concept of how to structure a character arc over a larger span, you’ll start to feel empowered instead of overwhelmed.
We’ve got the tools you need, so read on!
Back to basics
Whether you’re writing for one book or ten, the basics of constructing a character arc are the same. The story begins with your protagonist, who has a problem related to the main conflict of the story that challenges his or her status quo; this is Point A.
Your story ends with this character somehow overcoming the problem, solving the conflict, reaching a “new normal” in his or her life; this is Point B.
Your character’s arc is getting from Point A to Point B: What happens to this character in between that moves him or her through internal and external change? In a single novel, you start with Point A and end with Point B. Easy (sort of). But when you’re talking about more than one book, of course it gets a bit more complicated.
The difference is in the details
I said working with more than one book is complicated, but really it’s just about applying the same principles of constructing a character arc to multiple storylines. A big clue to how to structure your character arcs is found in what kind of series you’re writing because not all series are constructed in the same way. Let’s take a look at two main types of series and examples of how their character arcs are structured.
One continuous storyline
Some series follow a single main storyline, divided into books by subplots. The Hunger Games trilogy is a great contemporary example. The series follows its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, through the post-apocalyptic world of Panem from her humble beginnings as a girl scraping for food in District 12 to a national symbol, the “girl on fire” who revolutionizes her society. There’s an unmistakable character arc there.
This journey, though, happens over the course of all three books, in conjunction with each book’s main subplot. In each book, Katniss confronts a distinct conflict; in seeking its resolution, she’s changed a little more each time. Over the course of all three combined stories, Katniss undergoes an incredible, epic journey that leaves her forever changed.
Can you see how a protagonist can have a distinct Point A to Point B character arc in each book that correspond to the larger arc over the course of the series?
One character’s continuing adventures
Unlike a series with one continuous storyline, some series have multiple books with many different unrelated, or loosely related, plots. You see this structure most often in mystery, crime, adventure, and superhero series that follow a particular protagonist through various episodes.
What you find common to this structure is that there may be a particular characteristic or set of characteristics fleshed out by the protagonist throughout the series in different ways during each episode. So, each book has a distinct Point A to Point B character arc, but there’s a sort of cumulative effect, an ongoing journey for this character over time.
Crime writer P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh novels are a prime example. Detective Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is a strong but sensitive character with a rich inner life that plays as much a role in his stories as do the gruesome and gripping details of the mysteries he works to solve. Each book follows Dalgliesh through a particular conflict, which changes him over the course of the story. But over time, avid readers of James’s stories are caught up in the ongoing saga of Dalgliesh’s personal struggles and victories, gripped by the true-to-life transformation of this man’s inner life over the years.
The thing to keep in mind in structuring and writing character arcs for this kind of series is that each book has a very strong and self-contained arc that corresponds to that book’s plot. How does the character change over the course of that story as he or she works to resolve the central conflict? And what is the discernible change in this character over time? This sounds a lot like the “one continuous storyline” series too, but the key difference is in the growth over time. What if you’re writing an adventure series of twenty books and you get to the end and realize every book is basically your character rehashing the same lesson over and over again? Is that as powerful and compelling as a character who grows and changes over the course of his or her adventures because of all the challenges to be overcome, lessons to be learned, sacrifices to be made? Those kinds of obstacles change a person, and they should change your protagonist in profound ways.
Give it a try
So, let’s do a little exercise together to get you started. For the sake of this exercise, let’s pretend you’re working on a trilogy; you have a general idea of the main plot arc, but you’re just not sure how your character arc works alongside it. So, get out a piece of paper or open a blank document and do some brainstorming:
- Write down the title of each of your books in the series. If you don’t have titles yet, Book I … Book II … Book III will do for now.
- Beneath each title, write a quick summary of the plot arc for that book. It doesn’t have to be completely developed; any information you have about each book will help.
- Start with Book I.
- Ask yourself: What is the main conflict that gets resolved within this first book? What related problem is my protagonist facing that challenges his/her status quo? Whatever you come up with here is the (Book I) Point A of your character arc.
- Now ask yourself: How does this main conflict get resolved at the end of the book? How does my protagonist overcome his or her problem and establish a “new normal”? This is the (Book I) Point B of your character arc.
- Repeat this process for each book.
- Now, take a step back and look at your outline. What do you notice about each book’s Point A and Point B? Is there a common thread? How are they similar? How are they different? Can you see an overall arc emerging?
Here’s the deal: Each of your books has a main storyline that is somehow related to the rest of your series (remember The Hunger Games trilogy?), but each does stand alone—meaning the main conflict of each book gets resolved. The same is true of your character arcs: Your character will continue to evolve in similar, related ways through every story, but each book contains some sort of measurable self-contained change.
This brainstorming activity is just one example of how to sketch out a character arc. Use the ideas and tools above in whatever process works best for you, but the basics are the same.
Writing authentic and compelling character arcs can be very challenging, especially when you’re writing a series. But, if you’ll take the time to sketch out that arc beforehand as you continue on in your series, you’ll see a big difference in the depth of your character work, and your readers will take notice too. I think following a character along that ongoing journey of change is one of the things that loyal readers love most. And when readers fall in love with characters, they can’t help but share their favorite stories with others.
What specific challenges do you face in writing character arcs over a series? What techniques do you use to overcome those roadblocks in your writing?