Preparing Your Character for a Sequel

Dont Roll BackThe thread that binds a series together is usually a character. More often than not, the first book’s main character is also a primary character in the sequel, and we hope the second book picks up where the first book left off with regard to that character’s development.

Unfortunately, some second books seem to restart the character’s development. Where is the wisdom he learned during the first story’s physical, mental, and spiritual journey? Why is he acting this way after all he has gone through? Hasn’t he learned anything? I’m sure you can name series in which you asked questions like these.

Let’s avoid this backsliding in our characters. We need to make sure that the character displays continuity of change in all categories–physical abilities, wisdom, mental perception, spiritual growth, etc. In other words, if second book’s main character (MC) is the same as the MC in the first book, he or she should be the same MC you presented on the last page of book #1, not on the first page of book #1.

In order to accomplish this, it’s important that you understand the character’s goals in the first book versus the overarching series goal. Usually the MC will achieve a goal during the first story but not a bigger goal that will require the entire series to accomplish.

At the beginning of book #1, usually after the crisis event, the MC has a goal of some kind, but he is not yet able to reach it. He needs to grow in one or more aspects, such as strength, weapons mastery, wisdom, courage, etc. During the first book, the MC then grows and is able to accomplish that story’s goal. Then he employs those new traits at the beginning of the second book, discovers a new goal that requires even more growth, and again grows to achieve that goal as well.

Finally, in the last book in the series, the MC uses all of the new characteristics to achieve the major series goal, one that has been clear (or perhaps lurking in the shadows) through the entire series.

Here is a diagram I put together that illustrates (please pardon my lack of artistic talent):

Series Goals

At the end of the first book, make sure readers know the goal the MC has accomplished and point toward a new task still lies ahead.

For example, here is the end of Reapers, book #1 in The Reapers Trilogy (***minor spoiler alert***)

“Is something else wrong?” Shanghai asked.

“Just that we need to hurry. Alex will be at my apartment with more energy for me, and she’ll show me how the tracking device works.”

“I’m all for that.” Shanghai pushed the watch into my pocket. “But you’re nearly out of gas. We’ll need transportation.”

I extended my thumb. “Let’s see if hitchhiking will work for a change.”

“Maybe someone will risk it. Your apartment’s not far.”

“After that, we’ll get to the bottom of all the Gatekeeper’s secrets.”

“As long as we’re together.” Shanghai regripped my hand. “For Sing?”

“For Sing.” I took in a deep breath. “Let’s find out what’s beyond the Gateway.”

Phoenix has obtained a tracking device that he hopes to use to find someone, and it is clear that he plans to try to reveal secrets that lay hidden “beyond the Gateway.” Thus a new goal is established. Therefore, the second book should begin with that goal, and Phoenix should use the device right away. It would ruin continuity to drop either the goal or the device from the next story.

In Reapers, Phoenix learned a new ability, how to more easily reap a high-level ghost:

I wrapped my cloak around her and laid it over her shoulders. The fibers latched to her body and adhered like flypaper. As the cloak began absorbing her, she sucked in a breath, her face locked in a grimace, but she stayed quiet. Apparently the new energy was easing the transition process. Otherwise she would be screaming in pain.

My clasp hissed, indicating an energy leak, not unheard of during a ghost collection, but more noticeable than usual. A tingling sensation ran through the valve’s wires to my heart—not bad at all.

Tori flattened out against the inside of my cloak. Whimpering softly, she thinned to a mist and disappeared, her eyes the last to vanish.

In book #2, he will use this new ability while trying to accomplish the new goal.

In Reapers, Phoenix grew in maturity and awareness as he realized that he has the responsibility to make a difference in the world instead of just trying to survive in his own little corner.

The scene faded to gray, then to black. All was silent. The city waited anxiously for dawn. They waited for someone to rise up and prove that their hopes and prayers weren’t for naught. They needed a courageous warrior who would open the gate and show them the other side of eternity.

“Hope,” I whispered. “It’s all they have. Who’ll keep it alive?”

As you might expect, Phoenix takes on this responsibility in book #2 without reverting to his pre-awareness state.

In writers conference classes, I often hear that our characters must grow as they suffer through the journey, but I don’t often hear that the characters should maintain what they have achieved. Simply put, if your character climbed half the stairs in the first book, don’t put him back at the bottom in the second. This kind of regression is frustrating and confusing for readers.

Although character regression can occur at times, it should be short-lived. Make sure your character’s overall movement is forward through the series.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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10 replies

  1. This is really helpful to remember. Does a characters development arc need to stay within a book? In the book I am working on, one of my morally good characters slips up and goes down the wrong path, metaphorically speaking, and joins the villain side. Can his ‘descent’, so to speak, start in book 1 and remain through part of book 2 before he changes, or is it better to contain an entire characters arc in a single book?

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    • Since I don’t know the details, I can’t be sure, but you can probably spread it over multiple books.

      I wonder how a morally good character could join the villain’s side. Doesn’t that mean he is not morally good? Not understanding the details prevents me from being confident in my advice.

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    • There’s a podcast that talks about this a lot, if you’re interested in a few specific episodes. Basically, it’s a gradual sliding scale. Small compromises lead to bigger ones. Choosing between two “goods” and one turns out later to have been bad (I mean, people are not all-knowing). Using their own moral compass against them. Personally, a gradual descent tends to be my preference. Whether you do it in one book or three is probably going to depend more on the character and the plot.

      I think if you choose to do it over several books, you’ll have to remember where he left off in the mudslide, maybe even refer back to it. And honestly, it shouldn’t be an easy descent at first. Anything that we get ourselves into, the first few times we know we shouldn’t do it. So we squirm and rationalize and keep it a secret. And it starts to poison us. And each time makes the next one that much easier, until at some point we aren’t questioning or feeling guilty at all. And once that happens, our entire moral compass has gone from distorted to shifted.

      And if it’s in one book, it’s still gradual, but in fewer words, so the trick is to not let it feel too fast.

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  2. Awesome advice to keep in mind, especially as my four-book series percolates. 🙂 You’re right; it is frustrating to see characters restart their arcs with each sequel. I hope to keep pushing my MCs further.

    (By the way, I know I commented some time ago mentioning that the thumbs up buttons were working, but that was short-lived. They’re still giving me issues. I’m not sure if that’s something you can fix or if there’s something wrong on my end.)

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