Creating characters for a series

When creating characters for a series rather than a standalone book, major and minor characters can evolve in surprising ways. A minor character who only shows up briefly in Book #1 could be a star of Book #4. Or a major character from Book #2 could die a horrible death in Book #3. Series characters, like people in real life, take on paths and personalities of their own.

I’ve published six YA/MG series. Most were sold on detailed proposals, which included sample chapters, mini plot outlines, an overall series view of the events and character growth, brief character descriptions, and a detailed synopsis for the first book. At this early stage, I only know basic facts about my characters. One of the first things I do is figure out my main character’s inner and outer motivation; motivation and conflict are the keys in my process of character development.

The easiest way for me explain is to give examples of my character process that created my supernatural YA series, DEAD GIRL (Flux), where my teen heroine, Amber, has such a bad sense of direction that after a near-death experience she makes a wrong turn into another girl’s body.

When I sent in my first proposal to my Flux editor, he disliked Amber. He said she was too negative and insecure, and he didn’t like her self-deprecating comments. He added that he liked her career aspiration and thought someone who wanted to be an entertainment agent should be more outgoing.

Did this editorial letter upset me? Not even! It fired me up to rewrite. I realized that my attempt to start off with an insecure heroine (so she can gain confidence through the course of the book) didn’t work. All I’d created was an unlikable heroine. So I focused on Amber’s career aspirations and gave her ambition, determination, and an earnest desire to help others. When my editor read the revised version, he wrote back that he liked this much improved Amber. And within a week I had a 3-book contract for the DEAD GIRL series.

Now on to other characters; main and minor….

Teens love romance in their books, so I always include at least one love interest. In a series, though, I like to have two very different guys for my heroine to choose from, and then I wait to hear back from readers which direction to go. This is another advantage to having a series; characters can explore many different relationships.

Usually I contrast my hero and heroine on a surface level then go deeper for traits they share. For Amber the guy was Eli—the brother of the boyfriend of the girl whose body Amber swaps into in #2, DEAD GIRL DANCING (yes, it does get confusing!). I contrasted Amber and Eli: Amber is ambitious and her family struggles to pay bills; wealthy Eli is shy and wants respect, not fame. Then I gave them reasons to fall in love: they both love math, chocolate, and music. I complicate their relationship by letting them fall a little in love before the body switch. Things get even more complicated when in #2, DEAD GIRL DANCING, Amber swaps into the body of Eli’s older sister.

Inner and outer character conflict increases tension and pushes the plot forward.

For other characters, I included a dead grandmother with a lot of attitude, a best friend who seems the opposite of Amber, and a guy friend who is comic relief and her tech guy when problems arise. The best friend, Alyce, has a very small role in #1, DEAD GIRL WALKING. But I established a close friendship and hinted at problems because I planned a much bigger role for Alyce in #3, DEAD GIRL IN LOVE.  So when it came time to write the third book, I was ready with ideas and a foundation of facts in the previous books.

Of course, the down side of creating a series is that whatever happens in the first books becomes fact. And keeping those facts straight can get confusing. That’s why publishers who create very long series like Nancy Drew keep a “Bible” of series events, characters, and all background information to give to their authors.  I’ve learned from experiences like this and tried using a binder to keep books and details straight. It’s easy to mess up and give a blue-eyed character black eyes or forget that a character’s mother is dead and then have her walk into a room

Tomorrow, I’ll give some basic tips for creating series characters. In the meantime, if you have questions, just reply here.

— Linda Joy, who wrote on a writing school application at age 14 that she wanted to write her own series someday. And it happened.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Creating characters for a series

  1. Great post Linda! Thanks for sharing your tips and story about your Dead Girl series. I remember you talking about it way back when, but I hadn’t heard the rest of the story.

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