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"How should I write character arcs in a series?

" This is the question I've been

getting probably more than any other of late. These days, more stories than not
are told as part of multi-book serieseverything from trilogies to thirty-plus
installments with no intended end in sight. Up to now, I've been addressing
character arcs primarily within the structure of a single story, using the
important structural moments in a classic Three-Act plot to anchor the timing.
But what if your character's arc spans more than just three acts and one book?
2 Ways to Include Character Arcs in a Series
You can approach character arcs in a series in either of the two following ways:
1. One Character Arc for the Entire Series
If your series is telling one seamless, overarching storyas in, say, the Star
Wars trilogy, Brent Weeks's Night Angel trilogy, Stephen Lawhead's King Raven
trilogy, or Susanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogythen you will also probably
want to choose to implement one overarching character arc throughout the
series. The character arc that begins in Book 1 won't be completed until the end
of Book 3 (or whatever).
2. Multiple Character Arcs Throughout the Series
If each installment in your series is a complete and distinct episodeas in the
Marvel movies series, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, and Ruth Downie's
Roman Empire seriesthen you may choose to implement a new character arc
for each book. In this approach, the character will encounter a new Lie in each
book, which will have be overcome by the end of the episode. The Lie will either
be completely new and separate from previous adventures, or it will build upon
the character's previous experiences. (For example, in his first movie, Thor
undergoes a positive change arc, which then sets up the Truth on which his flat
arc in the second movie is based.) This approach is pretty intuitive, since it
basically uses the same formula as any standalone book with a standalone
character arc.
FAQ: How to Write Character Arcs in a Series
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How to Structure Character Arcs in an Overarching Series
If you're writing an overarching series, you'll start by approaching your
character's arc just as you would if you were writing a standalone book. All of
the important structural moments (which we've discussed previously in series on
positive change, flat, and negative change arcs) will need to be in place over the
course of the story. The only difference is that the timing is spread out
Over-Arching Character Arcs in a Trilogy
Trilogies are comparatively easy to adapt to overarching character arcs, since
their three-book format closely mirrors the three acts in a standalone book (with
the first act being the character's time of comparatively unrewarding
enslavement to his Lie, the second being his time of discovering the Truth and
growing away from the Lie, and the third being his claiming of his new
empowerment via the Truth). The original Star Wars trilogy is an especially great
and obvious example of how this works.
However, keep in mind that in a standalone book, the Second Act is twice as
long as either the First or Third Acts. This does not mean the second book in
your trilogy has to be twice as long as the other two. But it does mean the three
acts of the overarching story won't neatly divide into one act per book. The
second act will begin three-quarters of the way through the first book and end a
quarter of the way through the third. Even still, adjusting the timing of the
character's development (and the overall structure in general) is comparatively
easy to figure out in a trilogy.
Over-Arching Character Arcs in a Series of Four Books (or More)
If you're writing a series of fixed length that spans more than three books, the
same basic principles apply, but you'll have to think a little harder about
adjusting the timing in order to get the arc to play out smoothly over the course
of the entire series.
A four-book series is actually just as easy as a trilogy, since the Three-Act
structure divides neatly into four sections (First Act, First Half of the Second Act,
Second Half of Second Act, Third Act). But the more books you add after that,
the more complicated the timing and pacing gets.
Bonus Tip: Use Series to Add Even More Depth to Your Character Arcs
So far, this is all pretty straightforward, right? Either you stretch your character
arc over all the books in your series, or you make a new arc for each book. But
what if (shazam!) you could do both?
Even in an overarching series, every book needs to be complete unto itself:
three acts, beginning, middle, end, opening dramatic question, ending with a
resolution answering that question. Even though the main plotand the main
character arcstretches beyond each individual book, you still have the
opportunity to develop isolated aspects unique to each book.
How does that work for character arcs?
Let's say you've got an overarching character arc for your trilogy, based on a big
Lie your character believes about being a coward. He's going to be working on
that Lie throughout the trilogy and slowly embracing the Truth that bravery is a
choice, not an inborn virtue. By itself, that's probably enough to successfully
float your series. But why not amp it up? Why not add layers and depth?
Each book in your series can be more than just a building block in the structure
of the overarching arc. They can also be smaller, supporting, standalone arcs of
their own. Each book can create a smaller arc, based on a smaller Lieone that
will ultimately contribute to your character's ability to overcome the big,
overarching Lie. For example, Book 1 might feature a mini Lie about how doing
brave acts (e.g., stopping a mugging) is a task that belongs only to socially
designated heroes (e.g., the cops), while Book 2's Lie might be that fear is
tantamount to cowardice.
Book 3 might feature a Lie about how we're not responsible for doing brave
things if we can remain in ignorance about the need for them. But since Book 3
will also be the final culmination of the overarching Lie, you may want to focus
all your energy there for a more seamless effect.
Just as character arcs can bring untold depth and resonance to your standalone
stories, they will also lift your series out of mediocrity and into memorability.
Whatever they demand in complicated pacing and timing, they give back tenfold
in thematic strength and character development. Don't be afraid to go the extra
mile by using character arcs in a series. Your readers will adore you for it.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called Out-
law, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in west-
ern Nebraska.