That first novel a writer pens may or may not be intended for a series. It’s the dream story the author has pondered for a long time and spent many a fretful night morphing into words.
Like with any good tale, the character is faced with a situation, goes into denial about it, accepts the challenge, fails, then is a combination of wit, wisdom, strength, and/or daring tackles that situation, and wins in some shape or form. Between page one and THE END, the character has acquired a new experience in their life which changes them. After all, every experience alters us in some way, shape, or form, too.
Readers like the book, so the author decided there’s demand for a series. Now comes book two. The protagonist is confronted by yet another dilemma. The biggest concern by any agent, publisher, editor, and also reader, is whether that protagonist can grow in book two, book three, etc. sufficiently to be realistic yet keep the reader entertained. Many a series has flopped with the author lost their oomph, and the protagonist quit growing.
The author and by extension the reader worry about growth of a series, which in essence means growth of the protagonist. That main character is primary for a reason. They are hit with the obstacles, and they are supposed to be the best person to solve the problem.
When my publisher asked me to diversify and create a second mystery series, they asked for a three-book synopsis, not so much for the plotting, but to see if the protagonist could grow over a three-book time period. So when I began that series, the first and foremost concern was creating a character in a setting with enough options to allow that growth.
That exercise made me look at a series as more than coming up with another tale about the same people.
Callie Jean Morgan was from South Carolina, but became an esteemed Boston detective, marrying a Boston federal agent she met in criminal justice school when they were both in their twenties. They had children and lived in Boston. She’d evolved quite handsomely in her personal and professional life. The higher the pedestal, the more successful the person, the harder they fall.
Losing her husband and one child, she limps home to remember why she left her parents to start with, unable to live under the same roof with them. She relocates to Edisto Beach, her childhood home, hoping what it did for her will aid her teenage son in his recuperation as well. Then I make Edisto Beach nothing quite like she remembered.
I created tons of room for growth. How? By snatching away what she had. She lost family, job, credibility, sanity, a sense of safety, and even health. Practically no place to go but up. But while she accomplished so much growth in Murder on Edisto, I didn’t allow her to make everything right. She still harbored a drinking problem. Her teenage son still felt the need to parent her because she’d been traumatized so much. She met a potential romantic interest but it wasn’t consummated. She made enemies, but didn’t make amends with them all. While she’d lost her detective position in Boston, and solved crime on Edisto, she hadn’t regained a badge.
Leaving me so much room for her to grow in book two.
Loss and growth go hand in hand when writing a book, but even more so with a series. There’s the character’s arc in each book, and the character’s arc for the series. The smart author could draw out that first book arc, with the end of that arc being on a higher plane at the end than the beginning. Your character has new skills, new experiences to draw from when confronting adversity down the road. She feels better. The reader feels like they read a solid story with a beginning, middle, and ending. But she isn’t all good or all perfect.
The next book, empowered with her past, she hits another wall. You rob her of some of that confidence. She loses part of the ground she gained in the first book. Then you make her climb out of that new hole, realizing that all of her learned skills don’t work this time. She cannot solve the new problem without growing into yet another realm. . . developing new experiences and skills.
This growth can be measured in a myriad of ways.
- Growth in confidence (think Frodo in The Lord of the Rings)
- Improvement in using professional tools (think Harry Potter and magic)
- Evolution in thought processes (think Jack Reacher)
- Physical growth (think Captain America or Iron Man)
- Problem solving skills (think The Hunger Games)
- Emotional growth (think Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God)
The biggest mistake writers can make in keeping a series going is by simply changing plot. Just throwing another puzzle at the character. That’s when a series waivers, its reputation thinning to a more two-dimensional tale.
Readers want to be the character. They want to feel what the character feels, experience the loss, pain, and fear. And if the character isn’t scrambling, frustrated, afraid, fighting for answers, risking to lose what they’ve gained, they cannot grow. Sure, they fight hard, but if in the end they haven’t learned serious lessons from the journey, what was the journey for?
© 2019, C. Hope Clark. All rights reserved.