Character Arcs Over Series

I have already written a post about how to write dynamic character arcs, but what that post doesn’t address is how to construct these arcs over the course of a series. Usually when we think about character arcs, we think about them within the confines of a single book–the characters starts out with an inner need, and ends the book either fulfilling that need or not, depending on the type of arc you are building. But when you are writing a series, this rather simple pathway becomes more complicated–after all, you don’t want your character to start feeling stagnant because you already resolved their arc in the first book, or the reader to feel like you’re retreading the same ground by having the character face issues they’ve already dealt with.

So how can we construct character arcs that feel satisfying within each book, and also cohesive throughout the course of a series? Each book in a series should feel like both an arc as well as a building block for the larger arc the character is undergoing. That is to say, you’re not inventing a brand new arc (with a brand new inner need) in each book. Each book will instead look at the character’s inner need in new and evolving ways. 

Think of each book as a building block for the entire arc of the character. In the first book, the character confronts the “lie” that stops them from fulfilling their inner need. In the second book, whatever insight they’ve gained from book 1 is tested to an even greater extent. A choice is then presented to the character–either overcome this new hurdle with the lesson they have already learned, or reinvest in their original, flawed way of thinking. Either path can work, depending on the story you’re telling and how earned that choice feels. The next book in the series then builds off whatever realization–good or bad–they gain in the second book. And so on! Rather than rehashing the same point, the changes the character goes through should evolve and allow them to contextualize that insight they’ve gained in new ways.

As an example from my own series (spoilers ahead!), the big lesson that Jude Weatherbourne learns in the first book that his weaknesses and doubts don’t have to hold him back from fulfilling his destiny. That’s all fine and good–but then we get to the second book, where Jude’s faith in himself is tested, once again, when the people around him behind to doubt him and question whether he can fulfill his duty. Jude’s faith in himself falters, but over the course of doubting himself, he is able to dig deeper and begin to question some of his other deeply-seeded beliefs and discover that fulfilling his destiny means actually renouncing many of those beliefs. Each realization that Jude comes to leads him to the next–although, of course, the path is not quite as smooth as that.

Most character arcs, particularly in the course of a series, will have some form of a setback or backslide, and I particularly love when a character faces that choice and chooses wrong. It is, after all, so deeply human to make the same mistake over and over again. But, on the flipside, having your character backslide/relapse can feel frustrating to the reader if that choice is not executed well. You never want the reader to feel like you as the author are retreading old ground.

Therefore it’s essential that this “backslide” feels earned, and feels like an evolution from the character’s original issue. I’ll use one of my (and everyone’s, it seems) favorite character arcs to illustrate how this can be done effectively. In Avatar the Last Airbender, the exiled Prince Zuko spends most of the first season trying to hunt down the Avatar and regain his honor so he can retake his place as the prince of the fire nation. At the end of that season, however, an encounter with Aang leads Zuko to try a different path–one where he helps people instead of exerting his authority as the prince of the Fire Nation. We as the audience are invested in this journey for him, and want him to learn the lesson that will finally break the cycle. However, just when it seems like he’s ready to turn over a new leaf for good and actively defy the Fire Nation, he instead turns around and rejoins his family, reinvesting in his role as the prince of the Fire Nation.

As the audience, we are horrified that he would choose this–that he would choose, essentially, to stake his self worth on people who have not only abused the rest of the world, but have abused Zuko. But what makes this choice work so brilliantly is that it’s not Zuko simply backsliding into his old ways–it’s Zuko being offered the one thing he had given up hope of having–a place with his family. The lessons he’s been learning all season long are suddenly being tested as they never have before. The betrayal is shocking, but it is also earned. Zuko is now in an entirely new position with his family, carrying the same baggage he had before, but the lessons he’s learned up until this moment are still there, influencing him. And it’s exactly this moment of backsliding that makes the rest of his character arc feel so earned. The fact that he gave in to the lie makes ultimately overcoming it that much more poignant.

One of the things that’s so fun about doing a character arc over the course of the series is that you have more room to explore these different facets of the question the character is facing–and you have a chance to show what happens when a character who should be learning one lesson actually winds up learning the wrong one. Of course, not all series focus on the same character throughout (or don’t focus on the same character equally), so there are certainly other approaches to writing character arcs than what I’ve talked about here.

What are some of your favorite character arcs within a series? What made them effective for you?

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