Do series characters change? A better question might be: Should series characters change? Go through some upheaval that arcs their life into uncharted waters?
But, first, what is a character arc? Where does it come from? How do you create this in your fictional stories? More importantly, do you even need one?
What is a Character Arc?
The answer to the first three questions is fairly straightforward. A character arc simply means the change that the character goes through over the course of the story. Something happens in the character’s life that pushes it off balance. It might be a shark feeding off the shores of Amity Island or two robots showing up and babbling about some character named Obi-Wan Kenobi. It might be a group of armed criminals taking over a small hotel on Key Largo, along with an approaching hurricane just to make things worse. Regardless, something comes into the character’s life, pushes it off kilter, and the remainder of the story is that person trying to rebalance things. As this journey unfolds, the character changes, learns something about himself, reaches a different level of understanding or compassion or ability to act.
As a writer, your job is to create these characters, put them through their paces, and in the end move them to a different level. This is not always positive. There can be negative character arcs. An excellent example is Michael Corleone in the Godfather series. Michael transformed from an easy-going ex-soldier into a ruthless mafioso. A solid character arc will satisfy readers because they see change come about in a character they have grown to care for.
Character Arcs in a Series
But what about a series character? A character that must move through five, 10, 20 or more novels? Do the protagonists of such series undergo a character arc? Should they? And if they do, will the most loyal readers recognize them after the 20th installment? It’s something that’s argued about in writing conferences year after year.
Did James Bond ever really change? Did Jack Reacher? The answer, of course, is very little if any. Bond is always Bond; Reacher is always Reacher. If in each story, these iconic characters were confronted with situations that caused a massive change in who they were on a deeply personal level, and these changes piled up story after story, they would become unrecognizable very quickly. And readers would revolt. We read these stories because we like the main character and we don’t want him to be someone else.
So, if a series character doesn’t change, what’s the story about? It’s about this character, who we know and love, facing very difficult circumstances and successfully solving the riddle. The character doesn’t have to change dramatically to do this, nor does he need to have some earthshaking revelation about himself or the world or even someone else. What he needs to do is use whatever skills he possesses to correct the situation and put the story world back in order.
For James Bond, it’s often saving the world from Ernst Stavro Blofeld. For Jack Reacher, it’s taking on the troubles of the little guy and his fight against the big guy or the bad guy. Reacher is basically Shane. The quiet hero who comes into town and saves the day. And we like that. We don’t want him to change. Same for James Bond. When James Bond returns to London or Reacher sticks his thumb out and hitchhikes to the next town, they are the same person they were at the beginning of the story and indeed the story before and the one before that. They don’t change, they use their skills to solve problems. And we relish being along for the ride.
Writing a Steady Protagonist
These are the same principles I employ in my Jake Longly series. These stories are more humorous than hard-boiled. Mainly because of Jake’s quirky take on the world around him, his complete contentment with his life as it is, and that, despite his resolve to avoid real work, the circumstances he repeatedly finds himself in. Jake is an ex-professional baseball player who now owns a bar and restaurant on the Gulf Coast. His life goals are to run his bar, hang out with friends, and chase bikinis. He is who he is. This seemingly lack of ambition creates tension with his father Ray, who wants him to be more serious about life and to join him in his private investigation firm. Jake will have none of it. Jake does not change. He’s the same low-key, lovable character through each story.
So what is the story about if not change? This series is basically about Jake and his girlfriend Nicole Jamison and best friend Tommy “Pancake” Jeffers, who actually works for Ray as a P.I. Actually, so does Nicole. Well, sort of. Though Jake twists and turns and does all he can to avoid it, Ray, Pancake, and Nicole continually drag him into quirky situations that involve crime and corruption, even murder and mayhem. Jake is always a fish out of water and continually finds himself in deeper water. His abilities, or lack thereof, to handle these calamities plus his off-kilter view of the world, is where the humor lies in this series.
So, does Jake change? No, and yes. His basic nature and his belief system remain unaltered, but his relationship with Nicole does trigger some evolution within Jake. Before meeting her, a long-term relationship for him was maybe three weeks, yet he and Nicole have been together for over a year. And they are content with each other. But in the big things, the earth-shaking things, Jake doesn’t change. And that’s the way it should be.
So, while character arcs work very well, and indeed are essential, for many stories, for a series character, they can spell disaster. I think the best advice for writers is that for your series characters you should pressure them, make them adapt, make them use their skills to solve the problem and save the day, but be wary of fundamental changes in who they are. Your readers will buy your next book because they like your protagonist. Don’t make him a stranger.
DP Lyle is the Amazon #1 Bestselling; Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Award-winning; and Edgar (2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book (2) Award-nominated author of 20 books both non-fiction (Murder, Mayhem, Forensics for Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, More Forensics and Fiction, Howdunnit, Forensics and ABA Fundamentals: Understanding Forensic Science) and fiction, including the Samantha Cody thriller series (Devi’s Playground, Double Blind, and Original Sin); the Dub Walker thriller series (Stress Fracture, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, and Run to Ground); the Jake Longly thriller series (Deep Six, A-List, Sunshine State), the Cain/Haper thriller series (Skin in the Game) and the Royal Pains media tie-in novels (Royal Pains, First, Do No Harm and Royal Pains: Sick Rich). His essay on Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island appears in Thrillers: 100 Must Reads his short story “Even Steven” in ITW’s anthology Thriller 3: Love is Murder, and his short story “Bottom Line” in For the Sake of the Game. He served as editor for and contributed the short story “Splash” to SCWA’s anthology It’s All in the Story.
He hosts the Crime Fiction Writer’s Blog and the Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction podcast series. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.Visit his website, and connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.