Creating character arcs for a series

After recently reading the last Ketty Jay book (by Chris Wooding), I had a mind blown moment. The books stayed with me for weeks after reading the last sentence (as good books should) and I realised suddenly how each character had developed throughout all four books.

Now, planning just the one novel can be complex and overwhelming. How the hell did Mr Wooding create eight (eight!!) story arcs across four (four!!) novels?!
Did he plan them out from the beginning or was he just lucky that they all fit together so beautifully?

However he managed it, I want it. The majority of my big ideas are ripe for becoming a trilogy or series. I’ve already written two novels in a trilogy and am about to start the first in a series, and I want my character arcs to work. I mean, really work.

I’ve spent the last month or so trying to outline my new novel. The solutions to plot problems just wouldn’t come. Don’t worry! They came to me one night this week, when my husband had finally convinced me to turn the light off and go to sleep. As soon as it went dark, BAM! And I had to put the light on again to write it all down (sorry, hubby!).

So now that the main plot is figured out, it’s time to look at those character arcs.

What is a character arc?

Basically it’s how your character gets from point A to point B including what it does to them, how it changes them and how it affects those around them.

For example, Dean Winchester (Supernatural) going from womanising, charming and witty to believing that he doesn’t deserve to be loved and… (spoiler!) stepping over to the dark side. That is his character arc, and it is entwined with Sam Winchester, Castiel and Crowley’s character arcs.

Dean Winchester character arc J E NiceIf drawn as a graph, the character arc will be just that; an arc. Starting at one point, raising up as the story climaxes before settling down as the character starts on their new path.

Why is a character arc important?

I realised a couple of a years ago that I will often get to halfway in a book and decide that not much has happened, but I’ll keep reading because I want to know what will happen with the characters.

For me, characters trump plot. Good characters can carry even the weakest plot (see last week’s TMNT review), and the only way to have good characters is to have them relatable, interesting and develop within their own story arc.

Of course, once you have good characters, they tend to steal the plot away from you, creating a character led plot which is ultimately the best kind (in my opinion).

So how do you create your character arc?

Yeah, well, ain’t that just the question.

I think it’s easy to define your character’s journey. Deciding the big obstacles they will face and how they will overcome them will help you to develop that character and find out who they really are (and if you don’t outline, you should get some wonderful and possibly annoying surprises).

Since I discovered the ease of outlining my stories, I’ve used tables in Word so I can write various synopses and character bios alongside the outline. But it’s difficult to get a particularly complex novel in your head using this approach, since most of it will always be off the screen.

Many writers recommend using post-its or pieces of paper to write down the various scenes. This way you can move them around until the whole plot fits together. These can then be stuck up on your wall or a pin board by your desk so you can immerse yourself in your plot.

So one novel isn’t too tricky. But three or four novels?

I haven’t approached more than one novel yet. For my trilogy, I wrote the first book without any proper outlining and then used what I discovered to outline the second book, and then what I discovered from outlining that to draft a synopsis for the third.
The downside to this being that the first novel needed major editing (and still does) and I don’t really know what happens in the third yet which may mean further editing later on.

As for my series, I have a list of main plot lines I’d like to explore…but that’s really it. My plan is to type each one up along with concise notes of what may happen to each character.

But that’s where it gets trickier. As the months and years go by, I get new ideas and I learn new things which I want to put into future books.

How do you avoid this disturbing your character arcs in a series? I don’t think you can. Maybe the solution is to allow the arcs to stay a little vague, so they can grow with you. But the important thing to remember is to stay true to your characters. If something occurs that would drastically change things, save it for a different character and a different story.

Do you have experience of creating character arcs over multiple books? How did you do it?

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