Keeping It Real: Developing Characters Throughout a Series

by Miko Johnston

I became an author when I finished the first in my series of fiction novels – my first book, period. Interestingly, Lala, the character I inaugurated thirty years ago, recently turned thirty herself. Is that a coincidence?

Maybe not.

Petal InTheWindMy writing has matured over those thirty years, as has my heroine. Granted, when introduced in my first book, she was “almost eight”, so her voice and thoughts had to reflect her age. However, the book was meant for adults, therefore it had to present the story at a more mature level. Much of the storyline and the tension springs from a child who’s unable to fully understand her situation and an adult audience who clearly can.

As the story develops, and Lala ages, she had grown up in the eyes of my readers as well as my own. I sometimes feel like thirty years ago I gave birth to this young girl, though I’m thrilled not to have actually given birth to an eight-year-old! Still, having lived with these characters for almost half my life and four books, they’ve become very familiar, and I’ve grown close to them. I sense a greater intimacy between the characters with each novel, in part because of my growing familiarity with them.

I feel the same way about characters in the series I still read. I’ve become invested in their lives, curious to see how they play out. It’s become an even more important aspect of pleasure in reading than the storyline. I’ve stuck with a few series with formulaic plots because of my attachment to the people who populate the stories.  I’ve also dropped a few series from my must-read list and always for the same reason – stagnant characters.

I asked several writers of serialized fiction about how their relationship with their characters – and their characters’ relationships with each other – has changed with each book, and each passing year.

51pZwz0PBbL GOTUMike McNeff introduced his hero Robin Marlette in GOTU (pronounced Got-U, it’s short for Guardians of the Universe). His action/adventure series features a covert ops team that has to balance work with home life. Mike’s currently writing the fourth book in the series. When I asked him how his characters have evolved over time, he decided to let Robin speak for himself:

“We were once cops who tried not to hurt anyone, including suspects. Now we kill just to survive and it has reached the point where killing has become a mere afterthought. I’ve killed sleeping men, men who didn’t know I was near them and men who were simply doing an assigned task at a particular moment. They were all involved in acts threatening innocent people, but I gave them no warning…no chance to surrender. I just killed them.” Robin’s eyes met the admiral’s. “My men and I have become dark and dangerous shadows moving through the night grappling with a squirming underworld. I’ve become unsure of just what and who the enemy really is…I just react to threats to the innocent people on this earth.”

I’ll add that the series has grown darker, but as Mike’s characters have developed into a close-knit team, they’re more comfortable teasing each other, and their humorous banter provides comic relief that lightens up the action.

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41SMl8rQs0L IndelibleWhat began for Heather Ames as a stand-alone novel turned into a deftly blended mystery, suspense and romance series featuring Detective Brian Swift and socialite/club owner Kaylen Roberts (due in part to encouragement from some members of this blog). Ames says, “My characters have evolved from two people who didn’t even trust each other enough to share confidences into two people who have been trying to work through various challenges. They weren’t sure they could work things out by the end of Book one, but they both wanted to try.”

In each subsequent novel she balances the suspense between solving the mystery and navigating their evolving romance. Readers root for the couple, but Ames keeps us wondering as we follow their emotional roller coaster ride. “Being mismatched soulmates isn’t an easy gig. Brian’s profession is a huge stumbling block for Kaylen (while) Brian feels like a fish out of water in Kaylen’s world, and isn’t so sure he wants to try fitting in.”

The couple has progressed with each book. “Kaylen has evolved into a much stronger character than she was at the beginning of the series, while Brian has developed chinks in his armor that make him more vulnerable.”

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41SMgxyg59L Last ConfessionPat Kelley Brunjes traveled a similar route with her characters as I, opening her series with a story loosely based on her family history. In her first novel, The Last Confession,  her protagonist serves as a stand-in for Brunjes. “Maggie was me seeking to find the truth about my grandmother’s relationship to the Catholic Church.” Although based on her research, she fictionalized the story, which allowed her to take Maggie in a non-biographical – and more dangerous – direction. In the sequel she’s writing, her heroine gets entangled in a cold-case murder and human trafficking. “In the second novel, Maggie has evolved into her own person dealing with what fate has thrown her, and how her personal beliefs guide her decision to help others.” Having given herself the freedom to step away from semi-autobiography, Brunjes will have much flexibility in plotting future entries in the series.

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51sKIWU-ULL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ PaulineAvis Rector faces a unique challenge in writing her historical fiction series, based on the early life of her family on Whidbey Island. In her first book, Pauline, the heroine and her husband settle on the island during the Depression. “So much of the first Pauline was based on my memories of the stories I heard as a child from my father who loved to tell stories—usually real happenings, but many embellished.” However, in her sequel, the story moves into the 1940’s, a time Rector lived through. She’s having to reinterpret her childhood memories through an adult’s perspective. “Actually, I’m having a hard time writing how the adults felt about the time. Pauline has changed.”

Part of that involves Pauline’s maturing. Rector admits she struggles to find the right balance between the irrepressible gal readers meet in the first novel and the responsible parent she becomes after adopting two children. “It was difficult for her to become a mother. She’s no longer the fun-loving young wife (as in the first book), but a serious, not so much fun, mother. I’m sorry about this, and feel I should…try to soften her personality, to enjoy the experience of being a mother like she always wanted to be.”

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Most of us in WInRs have written, or are writing, series – I’m interested in hearing their take on this. I also know some of you reading this post write serialized fiction. What challenges have you faced moving your characters through the years, either in ‘book-time’ or real time? Have they evolved over the course of your series, and if so, how?

 

mikoj-photo1

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Author: photojaq

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

17 thoughts on “Keeping It Real: Developing Characters Throughout a Series”

  1. Great post, Miko. You sure did your homework on those series authors. My own series character is evolving apace, luckily living in a new country, thus it is pretty easy to have Tosca Trevant embrace America and leave some of her prejudices and mistaken ideas back in Old Blighty. Thanks, Miko. Carry on regardless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, you’re using your personal experience to inform the character’s, which gives a sense of realism to Tosca. It will be interesting to see how closely your reactions to your new homeland align.

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  2. I have grown with my characters as well. I might have started out with a sketch of who I wanted them to be, but any good writer will tell you to let your characters speak for themselves sometimes and watch what happens. They do become members of a larger, fictional, family. Or then again, maybe they take on a life of their own…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They certainly can become ‘real’ to us, which is a good thing for a writer. Then if we can translate the realism onto the page….

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  3. Quite a thoughtful topic. Like life, a character over time becomes a person, and I wish I knew where that process comes from because it can get downright scary–or worse, infuriating. You start out writing down one path, and these guys grab the reins and turn an entirely different way, and now you’ve got to toss out (ignore) all those pages of sketch outlines that are just… not… them! How do you deal with that, Miko?

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jack (and for those who’ve heard this story before, cover your ears : ) I originally planned to write a trilogy, but in the second book, two of my characters demanded to do something unexpected. It took another book to sort it out, and the same thing is happening in my fourth book. Therefore my trilogy has turned into a ‘quintogy’.

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  4. What a really interesting topic this is, Miko. We don’t always realize that our characters become family members that grow and age with us. I am going through that with my second Lottie Topaz book and can see the responsibility of watching her grow older and sometimes veer off into a direction I had not anticipated. It’s really exciting the way our characters tell us what they want to do, isn’t it? Great post – thanks.

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  5. I loved the article about the developing characters in a series. I “know” some of the characters from reading the series they were taken from and can see over time how these characters are developing and become more multi-dimensional. Great writing about characters and good ideas for writers.
    Heather Parsley

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    1. Thanks, Heather. We do grow attached to the characters in our favorite reads over time. And you’re right about how reading other authors inspires us. We often write in genres that we enjoy reading.

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