CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IN A SERIES
by Karen Randau
Whether you’re writing a standalone book or a series, you need believable characters who cause the reader to feel something. The characters must change—from weak to strong, devastated to overcoming, or lonely to thriving in a satisfying relationship.
In each book of a series, the change should unfold before the reader’s eyes to create a satiating experience. Characters should travel a believable arc from book to book, and each book is a building block to who the character has become.
Believable Characters Show Relatable Traits
Your key characters need certain characteristics.
- While often larger than life, they must be relatable to evoke the reader’s empathy, and they are never perfect.
- They encounter obstacles and conflicts and have a huge dose of fear, but they develop into someone who faces their instead of shrinking away.
- They fail, but they learn from their failures and overcome the obstacles you’ve put in their path.
Start with a Name
Names matter more in allegories than in commercial fiction but give your characters’ names a lot of thought.
Ethel is a good name for a woman born in the early twentieth century, but horrible for a contemporary girl. I often Google popular baby names of the timeframe and geography of my character’s birth. Research the name’s meaning.
If you want a character who is Slavic, big, strong, and violent, choose a Slavic name that Americans could pronounce and means something similar to your character’s description. For example, the Slavic name Nicholai is a variant of Nicholas and means victorious; conqueror of the people. You could use either version. Don’t forget to Google the first and last names together to ensure the combination doesn’t belong to a famous person.
Help Readers Visualize the Character
Sure, you must know the basic physical characteristics of all your characters (hair, eye, and skin color in addition age, height, build, piercings, tattoos, the sound of the voice, and physical imperfections). Advanced writers let the reader visualize the character in their own way rather than spelling out how the writer envisions the person. When possible, reveal physical characteristics through action and dialogue (showing) rather than by telling these traits (and not by the character looking in a mirror).
Backstory: Where a Series Becomes a Challenge
Backstory is everything that happened to your character before Chapter One and is what shaped that person into who they are today. You need not tell their whole backstory, and tell little—if any—in chapter one.
For my antagonist, protagonist, and key supporting characters, I create a one or two-page summary of their birth, siblings, where they grew up, educational level, political affiliation, spiritual beliefs, occupation, income, goals, skills/talents, friends, strengths, weaknesses, triggers, flaws, hobbies/pleasures, and anything important to their personality. Pick the few most relevant and reveal them through action and dialogue.
In my summary I like to include a photo I find online, but I avoid revealing who I envisioned in my writing. Let the reader imagine your characters for themselves.
Keep track of how characters in a series change from book to book. If you’ve planned an entire series, plot the character arc from the beginning of book one until the end of the final edition. If your process is to develop your story and characters as you write, think through the character arc for each book and keep it consistent with the previous books.
In my Rim Country Mystery series, protagonist Rita Avery started as a naïve, shallow person who cared more about fashion than her neighbors, and she rarely questioned the motives of her lying husband. The challenges and obstacles in the first book changed her, and the events in following books continued her transformation. By the fourth book, Rita is a savvy and compassionate private investigator who carries both a gun and anti-anxiety medication because of what happened in the first book.
You can find templates online for character development. Feel free to use the worksheet I developed for myself, found at http://www.karenrandau.com/character-development/. For a series, update your character summary with each book to provide greater depth and to decide which traits and backstory to highlight in your work-in-progress.
Karen Randau started writing as a way of life as soon as a teacher taught her to print Run Spot Run. She received a degree in journalism/public relations from the University of Texas at Austin, and had a career that spanned the industries of high tech, mental health, and nearly three decades at Food for the Hungry. Later, a seed of an idea turned into her debut novel, Deadly Deceit, the first in the Rim Country Mystery series, published in June 2016. The series now also includes Deadly Inheritance (January 2017) and Deadly Choices (July 2017). For more information, visit http://www.karenrandau.com/.