As of today, I have created three original series and written for several others where I had a fairly free hand in shaping the series beyond the original concept. I’ve worked on others where I was only a cog in a series already set. All this experience with series writing has taught me a few things, mostly through the pain of making the wrong choice to begin with. So, let me help you to avoid my mistakes.
When planning a series, the most important things to think about are character and premise. Those are the two things that will cause you the most pain when you make bad choices. Let’s look at them.
Creating Series Characters
When writing any book, you’re making a certain commitment to the characters. You’ll be spending weeks or months or maybe even years shaping those characters and the world the characters live in as you work through the book. And I’ve known a number of writers who lost their first initial rush of love for their main character by the time they’d slogged through writing and revising the book. Now imagine that multiplied by two or three or ten. Crafting a character or characters you can come back to with the same enthusiasm in book three that you had in book one requires some pre-planning. And crafting characters you can still enjoy at book six or book eight requires some luck. Let’s look at some choices you need to make.
1. How many lead characters do you need?
I’ve written a series with one lead character and one with two and one with three and even one with five. So how many lead characters can you handle? Let’s think about it. Let me begin by defining “lead character.” I always write with just one “viewpoint character.” This mean every single scene comes through that character’s viewpoint. But I’ll often have other lead characters who are as essential to the plot and theme as the main character.
If you have just one lead character then everything, every plot, every conflict, every resolution must rest on that character’s shoulders. This can become challenging as the series continues, and you have to build plot after plot with so much weight on this character, especially if the character has a secret. I created one series that way and found it very difficult to sustain. My main character had no single other character she could trust and relax with. And issues with the premise of that series made it even harder to create just four books that were interesting for reader and writer. I find that two lead characters or even three are the “sweet spot” for me. It means I have someone readily available when I need conflict or need for my main character to talk something out.
One of the series I wrote two books for had five lead characters. This choice was made by the publisher whose specs for the series were very scant beyond the need for five female leads. But balancing five lead characters is hard. You have to find something vital for each to do in each plot (otherwise, there’s no point in them being there). And you need to create five vastly different personalities, each with her own strong motives to avoid ending up with characters who feel like nothing more than pawns to be moved from page to page. In my opinion (and skills and enjoyment), five is too many. I wouldn’t go with more than three lead characters and never fewer than two.
2. What do you need to keep in mind when creating the lead characters?
The most important thing is that you’re going to be in a relationship with these characters for a while. A quirk that seemed funny and charming in the first book can get very, very tiresome when repeated book after book. A character who is nothing more than a prop or a caricature is going to be hard to sustain book after book because a thin character will grow thinner over time, unless you evolve the character (which can create its own problems with continuity). So think through your characters from the very beginning. Do you want to “be” with this person for a long time? If not, consider changing until you have characters you can stand to be around.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your characters will try to merge together into a clump over time. The best way to avoid this is to create well-rounded characters who are very different. I often do this by creating my second character based on flipping the characteristics of the first character. If my main character is brave and impetuous, my secondary lead may be hesitant and fond of planning. If my main character is shy, my secondary lead will tend to be more outgoing. By giving strongly contrasting characteristics, both characters will retain their separateness more easily. It’s important that even the shyest character have a least one very strong characteristic, something that will absolutely make the person stand out (and which you can sustain without coming to hate the character).
For one of the series I wrote, my main character is extremely loyal, braver than he thinks, and rather hard on himself. One of my secondary leads is a little bit lazy, always sure of himself (and therefore rarely scared), and his primary loyalty tends to be to himself. But he is smart and often has the information they need in a pinch, and he’s slowly growing as a person. The third lead character is impulsive, a tiny bit hyper, and tends to get really scared. But he is also loyal and basically good-hearted.
One thing I try to do is have each of these contrasting characters share some characteristic (or a variant of it) with the primary character. This helps the reader believe these kids could actually be friends. It’s very important that the reader believe in the core relationships, even if the characters do argue a fair bit. Having the characters share characteristics helps us understand that friendship.
Creating a Series Premise
Premise is another thing to keep in mind when creating a series. The premise is the idea upon which the books are built, the thing that remains the same. It’s different from plot (which varies in each book). The premise must lend itself to being interesting and workable in story after story after story. In the series with the five characters that I mentioned above, the premise was that five girls are given unique keys that let them enter a magical world where they are princesses.
This offered an amazing array of options. Why are these girls princesses? What does that require of them? Will the magical world ever imperil the “real” world? Who is the mysterious agent who sent them the keys in the first place? The premise offered the potential for many books to explore the mythology of the premise, while also offering fun adventures in each book.
In another series I created, the main characters are dealing with a virtual reality program that has been hacked. They must go into this virtual world to help track down the hacker and save the program (and save their favorite uncle from the villain). The premise was very strong for the arc of the hacker villain. It produced a solid four books of that arc that were really strong. But once the villain was caught, what could I do for book five? For book six? Though I did come up with a plot involving the virtual reality program, I was reaching pretty hard by that sixth book and it showed. So the premise needs to work long term.
In the most recent series I created, the main characters are part of an Internet television show tracking cryptids (creatures from myth and legend who might exist). The premise allowed the character to travel to new places, offering something interesting for each book. But it’s a premise that’s also bound by the number of cryptids (especially since many cryptids are too similar to make interesting new stories). So this series will have a point where it becomes harder to come up with stories, but it offers a fairly healthy future, and I have done eight books for it so far.
As you create your premise, think ahead for the future. How many different experiences does this premise offer your characters? Is there something inherently interesting in the premise? For instance, imagine I have a premise that two cousins go with their dads on antique hunting trips all over the country. That would let me visit a lot of different places, which could be interesting, but is it enough? Most kids aren’t overly interested in antiques. So maybe I need to add some additional layer to the premise that will offer something adventurous or scary. For instance, what if the kids (in the first book) discovered that one of the antiques their dads bought allows them to see ghosts? Or fairies? Or into another dimension? And that let them see something they needed to fix or stop to avoid catastrophe. That would be an interesting and compelling plot that could carry us though many books. Of course, I tend to drift towards fantasy and adventure. When choosing your premise, look for one that gives lots of options for what you enjoy most.
Do keep in mind: most successful series books are genre books. The most popular being humor. Beyond that, mystery, adventure and fantasy are also very popular. But if you’re more interested in character driven books or literary fiction, series books might not be for you. In character driven fiction and literary books, series tend to happen because readers want more books (and the publisher therefore pressures the writer to consider doing a second book) rather than because the writer actually proposed a series or planned a series from the beginning.
So that’s what I’ve learned from writing series books. I enjoy the challenge of taking the same characters through multiple books, but it is a challenge. Success is built on interesting characters and an open, exciting premise. Nail that, and you should come up with a series that grabs the reader and leaves them looking for the next book, and the next, and the next.
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.