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25 July 2019

SD Sykes: ‘Give your main characters room to grow …’

SD Sykes NL
by SD Sykes From Our Students, Writing Tips

SD Sykes (Sarah) was a student on our three-month novel-writing course in London back in 2012. Since then, she’s written four books in the ‘Somershill’ historical crime series, set in the aftermath of the Black Death. Her fourth novel in the series, The Bone Fire is published by Hodder and Stoughton. 

Here she shares 6 steps for creating a compelling novel series …

Writing a series can be a very rewarding career choice for an author, but it’s not without its challenges. Four novels into my own series, here are my tips for success.

1. Create a protagonist that you like. This may sound obvious, but you will spend many years with this character, so it’s essential that you enjoy their company. This doesn’t mean that he or she has to be heroic, exceptional or even likeable – but they must chime with you personally. This is particularly important if you’re writing in the first person, as I do. I’ve spent seven years and half a million words inside the head of a fourteenth century man. Sometimes he can annoy and frustrate me – but I still look forward to our time together. I’m still intrigued to see where he’s going.

2. Give your main characters room to grow and change. In my first three books, my protagonist was growing up – giving the novels a ‘coming-of-age’ narrative arc. In my latest novel, he is older and wiser – but he still has many things to learn. Change is important, both for the writer and the reader – but I should also say that characters in a series must take their time to change. Most crucially, this change must happen on the page itself and not in the space between novels. So, if your main character is shy and retiring in book one, then she cannot suddenly become a loud extrovert in book two. One of the delights of writing a series is that your readers come to love and treasure your characters. But you’ll also find that they don’t like sudden and unexplained swerves in personality.

3. Keep files on all your major characters, with dates of birth, parentage, major life events, children, place of education, pets, interests etc, etc. Most of this information will never make it to the page, but these files will ensure consistency across your series. When you’re writing book four, it’s much easier to refer to a file than ploughing back through the first three books to see if one of your characters ever owned a dog. (You might think you’ll remember this, but you probably won’t.)

4. Take your characters on an excursion. One way of ringing the changes between your books, is to move the setting. A different location certainly gives you a new challenge as a writer, and helps to solve the very real problem of becoming stale –­ but, I should add another word of caution here. My third book was set in Venice. How wonderful, I thought. To explore this 14th century metropolis at the height of its medieval glory. But this move was not met with universal love. One reader commented that he didn’t like this book, because it was a different ‘genre.’ Can a new location equate to a new genre? Yes, for some readers, it can. What you have to remember, as a series writer, is the appeal of a series to a reader. And one of the main appeals is a sense of familiarity – both of characters and setting. So, while you might fancy a change of scene, don’t assume that your readers will automatically feel the same. I’m not saying that you can’t edge your readers out of their comfort zone, but do so with care.

5. Develop a professional work ethic, because you’ll need to be productive. As a series writer, you’re likely to be writing in a genre, and as such, your publisher will want a book at least every two years. Leave it too long between books, and there’s a danger that you’ll lose traction and your readers will drift away. (Okay, so I know it’s been eight years since George R.R Martin published a new book in his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, but he is the exception and not the rule!)

6. Give yourself a break from the series every so often, and write something different. Poetry. A short story. Even an outline for a novel that you want to write in the future. You’ll feel refreshed creatively after this break, and eager to return to your series.

Read the Somershill’ historical crime series.

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