Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Character Arc In a Series--Part 5

Eleven days from deadling for Coral Moon. And counting. (Hm, I'm going to have to add that new word to my spellchecker.)

Here’s a fun article on writers and editors. Someone posted the link to it on one of my writers’ loops today. Read it and chuckle.

Okay, today’s topic. Guideline #2 for establishing a character arc within a series: Give the protagonist challenges in his/her personal life that will not be solved in the first book.

Not exactly rocket science, I know. Even in books that end well—and by far the majority of stories end at least fairly happily—we want to avoid fixing everything. Life just isn’t that way. So our stories shouldn’t be either.

Nor is it any new idea to create personal problems in the protagonist’s life. We’d better do that if we want a well-rounded character. Sure, my poor protagonists get mixed up in murder and mayhem, but they happen to have a life, too. Who were they before the murder and mayhem struck?

These personal challenges provide us with subplots for the story. It’s one thing to create them for a single book. But how to handle them in a series? Our job is to understand which personal problems need to be (at least fairly) brought to closure within a book in order to satisfy the reader, and which can be left hanging in order to pull the reader toward the next book.

In my opinion the best subplots somehow end up affecting the main plot. Not just by, say, overall wearing your character down so she’s got less energy to fix her main problem, but by specifically causing something to happen that makes the issues in the main plot grow worse.

For example, in my Hidden Faces series I’ve had a number of subplots running. One is a romantic subplot, although I purposely started this one very slowly. Really didn’t begin until book 2. A second is the subplot with Annie’s son, who is into drugs. He has issues with this running through books 1, 2 and 3, and is still feeling some of the fallout in book 4. This is a major source of heartache and chaos in Annie’s life. But it’s more than that. In each of these three books, something Stephen chooses to do, or the friends he’s running with, etc. ends up becoming a factor in the main murder plot. Now, of course I wanted to vary the occurrences so they don’t all seem the same book to book. Some occurrences may provide only indirect links between this subplot and the main plot. The trick is to make it all flow logically and coherently, and not seem contrived.

There are other issues in Annie’s life. There’s her guilt and feelings of self-doubt due to her own childhood and the break-up of her marriage. Meanwhile she’s raising two kids on her own. There’s her opinionated sister, who always bosses her around, and who isn’t a Christian and has no desire to become one. In fact, Annie isn’t a Christian either, at the beginning of the series. This, too, is a subplot that doesn’t see closure in the first book.

So Annie’s got plenty going on in her life—even if, in the prologue of book 1, her neighbor across the street wasn’t strangled in front of her own 12-year-old daughter. With all this stuff happening in Annie's life, I’ve got plenty of fodder to work with over the course of 4 books. And guess what—even at the fourth, some of these subplots/issues are not going to be “fixed.”

Of all the personal challenges to bring to closure in Christian fiction, the one that seems to plague us authors most is the “unsaved loved one.” Or even the unsaved protagonist. You don’t have to fix this issue in every character’s life, really you don’t. In fact, you shouldn’t. How often in life do you see all the folks within a family, plus all that family’s close friends, become Christians in a fairly short period of time? Even if your series spans many years, be careful of the temptation to save everyone. (Now there’s an oxymoron you’ll only find in Christian fiction.) Story rules. If a character’s going to become a Christian, this choice has to seem the only one he would make under the circumstances, given his inherent prejudices and hurts and worldview, etc. Or sometimes the nth degree of actual salvation isn’t the right choice. Sometimes it’s a mere turning of the character 50 degrees—enough to say, hm, yeah, there may be something to that God stuff; maybe I’ll take a look at it.

We’ll look at this in more specifics tomorrow. For now, if you’re planning a series, you might write down all the personal issues in your protagonist’s life. See which ones you can carry through more than one book. Make sure that the mix is such that the majority of them can be carried through. And if you've got questions about subplot issues in your series, or whatever, you know where to leave 'em.

Read Part 6


D. Gudger said...

I can't begin to tell you how appropriate and helpful this is for me! I'm hoping my novel is going to be a YA series and it always bothered me when everything turned out well at the end of books - especially teen books. Thanks for sharing.

Cara Putman said...

Great thoughts as I get ready for the second run through in my suspense with an eye to making it the first in a series. I can see subplots that need to be strengthened or cut. Some could span books and others need to either be developed or killed. Thanks for the ideas.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

As usual, you just gave me a dozen ideas! Thanks...keep your head in Coral Moon!