Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Writing Characters over a Series

Writing books in a series comes with its own highs and lows. Attracting readers along for the ride has to be one of the biggest joys, but that in itself comes with its own perils. Readers connect with characters, and with a series of books in particular, those characters are totally the main reason people will stick with the journey. Getting them right is a must. So, how does an author go about the task?

Here are three people who should know ....



To develop characters over a series, you need to know them far better than the reader ever will.

You need to know all about their past, what shaped them, why they developed certain patterns of behaviour and how they reached this point. Crime writer Sheila Bugler and I developed a questionnaire to get this in-depth knowledge of our protagonists.

From the first book, I knew my MC had a shelf life. I planned six in The Beatrice Stubbs Series and no more. With that in mind, not only could I plan each novel in terms of plot, but also conceive a character arc spanning six individual stories.

Repetition is a delicate balance. If Beatrice follows the same psychological pattern in every book, it becomes tedious and predictable. DI Stubbs changes and matures and sometimes falters but most of all, she learns from her mistakes.

Regular readers want enough familiarity with her personal life and allusions to previous events to feel they recognise her world. But I don't stuff in too much back story for newcomers those who pick up one as a standalone and might feel excluded.

The surroundings need to change and adapt with her. Certain relationships will wither or flourish within each book; others thrive or die over the series. If a character returns from a previous book, changes must have occurred offstage.

Finally, readers form their own picture of this personality. Unless she behaves in character, my story must provide a very good reason why not. Or I’ll get angry emails. Thankfully the only feedback so far is “I’ll miss her”.

You know what? Me too.

To be honest, writing characters over the course of a single book - let alone a whole series - once terrified me. I was paranoid someone with blue eyes in chapter one, would have chocolate brown ones by the end of the novel. Without the eagle eyes of a proof reader, I doubt I would ever have had the confidence to publish my first book!

However, knowing The Gold Detectives was going to be a series from its conception, helped me organise from an early stage, how to deal with characters who were each going to go on their own individual journey through the course of the novels. In an effort to avoid repetition (one issue I have found with reading crime series from other authors) my plan was to have a central character - DI Amanda Gold - who would be a major player throughout the series, but then for each member of her team to take the lead protagonist role in each new book. And so far it's worked a treat.

In the early days, I kept a diary on each of my characters. I jotted down descriptions, fashions, hobbies, likes and dislikes, personality traits, emotional status. I kept detailed notes on their family history, religious beliefs, prior jobs, school and exam results - and a multitude of information I knew would never get into the books. But if I knew all this useless information about them, then I felt confident answering a question from their point of view, even if the reader never got to find out the background.

In the writing of book one - Crimson Shore - there was a lot of checking and cross-checking to make sure I kept the characters consistent. But I have to be honest and say that in books two and three, there has been less need. If I write something new about character, perhaps the name of an ex-lover or ex-boss, I will note it down in my diary for them.

But I also feel I now have a much closer bond with my characters, to the point that I feel about them much as I would a good friend. For example, I know my friend Zoe has a brother called Pete, husband called Mark and two children called Jacob and Joshua. Because I've spent so much time with my characters, I know pretty much all of the same information about them too, and I'm much more confident in my relationship with my characters than ever before. I know how they think, I know how they speak, I know how they would react and I understand their humour and sarcasm. I can find myself inside their heads responding as they would without even realising it.

For a writer, there's nothing better than a reader telling you how much they love one of your characters or how upset they were when such-and-such happened to a character they've bonded with over the course of your series. It makes the hard work getting the characters to that point all worthwhile!


I think the main emphasis on writing characters over a series is to have them grow, otherwise they become stagnant. They need to learn from past experience and use that knowledge in future books to strengthen their character and to evolve. None of this I found hugely difficult for the Overlord series as I've always had the advantage of time and major events which are recorded in history. The books span 30 years, so there's maturing in years as well as growth through experience to explore for my characters. 

Also, there's the actions and decisions recorded in history, such as Zenobia's ambition and decisions to go to war, to manipulate other characters and so on which have to be influenced by something. This was interesting to explore, because in order to come to a certain event and a character decision you have to investigate what historically might have driven those decisions and influenced certain emotions. 

Some might say Zenobia's growth is the most interesting, and it is, because she grows from strength to strength with each book, amassing power as the years go by and influencing and creating alliances, but she doesn't actually grow that much as a character. She doesn't learn, which is one of her flaws and certainly part of her character. For me Zabdas is the more intriguing, for he learns rapidly, both from emotions he feels, events which unfold, and his reflection on the decisions of others. He understands more as the years go by and doesn't so much amass strength and knowledge but finds it and nurtures it.

JJ Marsh, Gillian E Hamer and JJ Marsh are all members of the Triskele Books author collective.


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