Writing a crime series is a curious endeavour. There’s all the tricky stuff of how much backstory, as each book is a standalone adventure, yet there must be an overall arc for those following the series. Each plot needs to be new and different, but bear the hallmarks of a Beatrice Stubbs novel.
As luck would have it, my Triskele Books colleagues and I have recently embarked on a creative writing course. We decided that amongst all the practical elements of publishing as a collective: writing, reading, critiquing, blogging, reviewing, marketing and networking, we had precious little time to focus on improving our writing.
So we scouted around and collected our favourite writing exercises to flex some writing muscles we might have neglected. We published one of the first in Words with JAM: A Character Interview
Not only has it been great fun, but interesting to see what the others thought and extremely helpful for my work. As I wrote the last scene of Human Rites, I reflected on the importance of character development over a series.
Despite the hefty cast of characters in each of these novels, only certain people remain constant in all. And they are the drivers of the overall arc. It is the interaction between individuals the reader knows and loves/hates that creates dramatic tension. I like Yvonne Grace’s visual analogy of a bicycle wheel, where you need to plait the spokes to make the characters’ stories intersect. Another successful writer I know uses grids to plot the development of character over a series. Maybe because I have a musician husband I found the system of musical notation a handy tool.
Like an orchestral score, each character has five horizontal stave lines while vertical bar lines represent the books. Usually, I allow three bars per book, indicating the three-act structure. I plot the emotional journey of every character over the course of each book, which gives me an easy overview. That enables me to see where one character is left stagnating in misery and needs some light relief. Or where I’ve played treble notes throughout and forgotten my bass line.
It’s also a good way of keeping track of the harmonies. Who’s up when the other is down? Where do they collide on the same note?
Another benefit of those whole book-in-three-bars system is the degree of change from the start of each adventure and the overall rhythm of ups and downs. If DI Stubbs starts each story full of enthusiasm and ends embittered and sad, the pattern becomes monotonous. Vice versa, where the reader leaves one book and begins the next should not have a jarring discord in character outlook.
Character relationships play a huge part in subtext. By doing in-depth character work, such as the questionnaire above for all your key players, you can use the detail only you know about these people to drop little breadcrumbs across the stories. So that when a secret emerges, the loyal reader is rewarded with a join-the-dots moment.
Lastly, how do they grow? What has changed between Books One and Two? How would s/he do things differently after the experience of Book Three? Use your reader’s emotional intelligence and memory. Of course he’s afraid of the attic after that spider episode in Book Four. Naturally she’s gone off rare steak because of what happened at the end of Book Two.
As I said, I’m curious. If you are writing a series, be it crime, fantasy, sci-fi or any genre at all, how do you track character development?
Orchestral score image courtesy of Creative Commons