Planning a Book Series: Characters Who Can GO the Distance
The first thing most publishing professionals will tell you when you’re submitting to trade publishing is to focus on the single book rather than pitching a series. Most of the time, this is good advice, but some publishers actually only consider series fiction, especially educational publishers. Still, whether you’re pitching a single book (with high hopes of it becoming a series) or actually pitching the full series, there are some things to keep in mind to make the process smoother and easier, and most of those happen early, at the planning stage. Let’s dig into planning a book series. Today we start with characters.
Characters You Don’t Mind Revisiting
When writing a book that will stand alone, most writers aren’t really bothered if a character is a tiny bit annoying or has some kind of tricky trait. But those traits can become a problem when writing book after book. For example, in my series Adventures in Extreme Reading, I thought readers would enjoy a character who loved puzzles, the trickier the better. I loved puzzles, especially logic puzzles and thought having a character who shared that trait would be fun. Then to be even more interesting, I decided it was a trait the character shared with his mysterious uncle. In fact, maybe the uncle preferred communicating in puzzles and codes.
Fun right? It was, but it was also an extra burden as book after book had to include unique and interesting puzzles for the characters (and therefore the readers) to consider. I quickly learned that liking to solve puzzles wasn’t quite the same thing as liking to create puzzles, especially new interesting puzzles that also made sense with the plot. I’d thrown myself a curve ball that I had to be able to hit out of the park book after book. Honestly, if I’d thought about it ahead of time, I wouldn’t have made that a trait at all.
I know another writer who created a side character for a book series who had a gross habit. It was exactly the kind of disgusting thing kids in early elementary would find hysterically funny throughout the whole first book, and the second, and maybe the third. But this series ran to over fifteen books. How long will the same joke work? Making it integral to that character’s identity meant it needed to be there, but it became less and less effective. Now, the writer certainly never expected the series to run nearly as long as it did. In fact, it ran well past her enjoyment of writing it. But there is always the possibility that a series will do really well. So always consider every character trait or habit very carefully before you include it.
Personally, I like quirky characters and often include them, but quirky walks a fine line between obnoxious and unbelievable. And it’s an easy line to fall from, thus creating a book that draws in lots of negative reviews based on a quirky character you may have loved. That doesn’t mean you should always look for the bland, easily written, never offensive character. No one likes those either. So what is the answer? With characterization, the answer is almost always depth.
Stay Out of the Shallows
Any book that you even distantly think might have the legs to become a series needs characters with complexity and depth far beyond the book at hand. And you need to know these characters very, very well. Now, this can be tough if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, but it’s far from impossible. If you wrote the first book by the seat of your pants, make creating an in-depth character analysis part of your revision process. Note all the things you came to know during the writing of the story. Maybe you discovered your main character was terribly afraid of spiders. Maybe you learned he could whistle with his nose. Maybe he lives alone with his mom because his military father died. Or maybe he lives alone with his dad because his military mom died. (No need to go for the obvious). Whatever you’ve learned during the writing of the book, now is the time to deepen it. Take what you already know and think more about it. Think about the roots of each trait. Think how it may shape behavior. Think what other traits logically go with it.
For instance, ask yourself why he is afraid of spiders? Think about it complexly. He isn’t simply afraid of spiders because it was convenient for your book. He is afraid of spiders because of something real. Maybe he hates the way they get into a house no matter how hard you try to keep them out. Maybe he hates the idea of how they feed. Maybe it’s the way they look or move. Maybe he walked into a cobweb once in the basement only to have a spider drop right onto his face. Whatever is at the root of his fear, know what it is. That knowledge may have no value for the first book, but may prompt something deeper and even more important when planning a book series with multiple follow-up titles.
Mistakes Were Made
One of the common jokes around my house pops up whenever a television character simply goes somewhere in a series and never comes back. We call it being “Chuck Cunningham” because of a character on the old Happy Days series who simply disappeared. He was a shallow character who didn’t add anything, so the show creators simply decided to never speak of him again. He went upstairs one day and never came down. In other words, they made a mistake by adding this character to a series and decided to simply pretend it never happened.
It’s hard to undo a mistake in a book series. Readers will notice a poor patch job or a character who simply goes upstairs, never to return. When you’ve made a mistake and realize that it’s not going to be viable book after book, you need to come up with viable story reasons for changes so readers don’t become frustrated or complain that characters are acting “out of character.” Writers can be annoyed or defensive in the face of that kind of complaint. After all, the writer created the character, therefore any way they act is in character, right? Well, sure, but are they acting in a believable, realistic way? Does it line up with everything that came before? Or are you simply dragging the character in a new direction because you realized the old direction didn’t work? If it’s the last reason, go ahead and realize that’s simply bad writing, and you owe the reader a convincing fix, not a convenient one.
True, Not Trendy
Every character you create needs to be someone you can write in a way that is believably true. Don’t simply add a character for the sake of having a diverse cast. It is in fact important to create believable books where every character isn’t exactly the same social status, or color, or religion, or sexual orientation, or any other sort of exactly the sameness. But each character must also be true. You’re not making a casserole by tossing in random ingredients. You’re creating a book where every single character needs to be a person, a believable person who is true to who they are.
That means you need to avoid being one more writer to jump on the one-note character wagon. Understand that no one’s life is simply one thing. Black Americans deal with the effects of systemic racism, but not every moment in their life is a battle with racism. A gay character may come to be attracted to another character, just as any character may, but it doesn’t need to become always a huge gay awakening moment that consumes every thought. Characters are complex, just as people are. They experience many different moments, tough ones and easy ones, joyful ones, and painful ones. Never be tempted to create a character simply to thump on a single note. People are more than one thing, even if you don’t always realize it.
This is true in single book stories, but becomes even more important in a series. After all, if your character has only one note, one kind of experience, one reason for being, what do you do with that character in the next book? Do you hit the same note again and again and again? How do you move the character past that when it’s all you ever thought about, when you don’t really know and understand the experience and culture of someone you simply tossed in because you thought you had to?
Create a cast of very different people, sure, but spend the time and have the courage to make them people with depth. Understand their lives enough to write them honestly, or simply don’t go there. And this is true of villains as well as heroes. We’ve read so many books, so very, very many books, with villains who are blonde, spoiled, cruel female bullies or bulky, athletic, not entirely bright male bullies. It’s almost a cut-and-paste character at this point. But even bad guys are more than one thing. Don’t go for the easy bait.
Do I sound naggy? The lesson is as real for me as for anyone. I am constantly reminding myself not to go for the easy villain when planning a book series, the one everyone uses. I remind myself that whatever character I create, good or bad, needs to have surprises for the reader. Each person needs a host of traits so I can build story after story with these people without every becoming exhausted by them. I recommend the same for you. With each person you create, ask yourself, can I be comfortable with this character if I have to spend years with him? If I have to go back again and again? If the answer is yes, you’ll find everything about series writing becomes easier. So don’t shy away from the work of depth. The series you save may be your own.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.
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