Graduate’s Corner: The Growth of a Protagonist in a Series by Lane Robins

Lane Robins was born in Miami, Florida, the daughter of two scientists, and grew up as the first human member of their menagerie. When it came time for a career, it was a hard choice between veterinarian and writer. It turned out to be far more fun to write about blood than to work with it. She attended Odyssey in 1999, and currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with an ever-fluctuating number of dogs and cats. She is the author of The Antyre Chronicles (Maledicte and Kings & Assassins) published by Del Rey. Under the name Lyn Benedict, she is writing the Shadows Inquiries series for Ace, which includes Sins & Shadows, Ghosts & Echoes, and the just-released Gods & Monsters. You can visit Lane’s website at www.lanerobins.com.


My standard comment on character goes like this: Character is the intersection of personality and plot. That’s a fancy way of saying that your carefully constructed person has to care about what’s going on in your book, and has to be changed by the events. Like plot, a character has an arc that should begin, progress, and come to a resolution.

This is generally true of any type of story, be it short, novel length, sequel, or serial. But serial stories have their own set of requirements.

In a single novel, character growth is continual; every scene the character is in depicts her personality and how it’s being altered/affected by what’s happening. Almost always, the plot stakes are personal. In a trilogy—one complicated plot covering multiple books—time expands around the character. As a result, the character’s growth may move more slowly, affected by only some of the plot events, with small periods of character stasis in between.

The series book changes things: While the main character needs to change and grow, that growth can take much freer patterns. The connection between plot and character is looser, as well. The character still needs to be affected by the plot, but not to the same degree in every book. Some plots may not have personal stakes for the series character.

In a series, there can be room for “throwaway” character development (I use throwaway loosely here—nothing should ever be totally irrelevant). In a stand-alone novel, you’re fighting for space; every line at a premium. In a trilogy or beyond, you’re fighting to make enough space for the very complicated plot-threads. But in a serial novel, somehow it’s all right, even expected, for characters to have interests outside the plot—interactions with family or friends or frivolous personal hobbies.

The reason this works is because the reader expects series to have multiple, discrete plots throughout the books, but really, only one character arc. Your character begins in one emotional place, is changed, and ends in another. This means there are static periods where the character doesn’t change. If your character changed completely with each book, you’d risk ending up with a soap opera character/caricature. But, while serial books allow for static periods, they can’t sustain them indefinitely, not without feeling repetitive. So the character arc moves in slow fits and starts.

For my purposes, I have a very simple arc for Sylvie Lightner—my own serial character. In the first book, she starts off as standard human, furiously angry and despairing, deeply alone. I know where she will end, the changes she will undergo to get there, but I can’t rush her to that point, no matter how many openings there are in the plot.

Which leads to the real trick of the series character: You’re (probably) writing blind. You’ve sold two books! Awesome! So you plot the character arc out to cover two books, but then, you hear wait!, you’ve sold two more!, and you have to pull back. You can’t finish the character’s growth while there are still books to write. So you retard her growth, throw distractions her way, make her backslide, or reject her growth. Then there’s talk of more books still! And her character arc stretches on and on.

You don’t want to end the arc too early, leaving yourself with a series that feels like it’s just going through the motions. At the same time, you don’t want to find out that whoops, nope, the publisher’s not sure about the next books after all, and you’re in danger of leaving the character unresolved. So each book becomes a juggling act, trying to leave things both open and partially resolved. You chop the character growth up, dropping one large chunk in the first book to point out that your character will change significantly, then scattering satisfying bits and bites in successive books, and being always ready to wrap it up in a satisfying way.

It sounds like a lot of hassle, but it’s worth it. Serial characters are often the most fun to write. You can write mini-arcs within the books that can be just for fun—the main character’s running battle with her long-suffering assistant, for example. And of course, best of all, you can really get to know your character.


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