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I have a world in which many characters live in. At first, I thought they all could be part of one novel (kind of like Sherwood Anderson's book Winesburg, Ohio or the movie Short Cuts (1993) by Robert Altman), perhaps even a trilogy. But more thought into all of these characters leads me to believe a series could be appropriate (think Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels), perhaps separate books focusing mainly on one character each.

This is pretty much a monumental task, which I'm ok with, but what type of character would be good to start a series with? Not all characters would necessarily cross paths either, so perhaps 2-3 could be in the same book, and perhaps some could be in multiple books as well switching between MC and secondary character.

To clarify the question, what would be the best way to set the tone for this series, like something to introduce the world. Or should I just let the world gradually become more detailed with every book, like a gradual spilling of information about the world.

Does it really matter what type of character to start a series with?

I'm aware this could be too open of a discussion, but if there are any literary dos and don'ts about series starting that I'm not aware of, or perhaps stronger, and proven, ways to be more effective in the beginning, I would greatly appreciate those elements included in the answers.

  • I'd suggest the villain(s) of the story, then bring in the good guy(s) that will be sticking around thru the stories that will take them down. – CrossRoads Mar 12 '18 at 17:59
  • How connected are these characters: Are we talking Animorphs... where they are a team with a rotating MC between each book... or Marvel Movies where we have a series of characters on their own adventures and then they get together every so often to beat down Loki. – hszmv Mar 13 '18 at 15:53
  • @hszmv neither, actually. Many characters may have little to no interaction with each other. The commonality is their proximity to each other. So you can say, for reference, all these character live in and around a type of 'Gotham City', but they may or may not have intersecting storylines. – Carlo Mar 13 '18 at 22:50
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I suggest you start with an Innocent (or an Outsider) — a Cabbagehead kind of character, someone who doesn't know anything about your world so the world has to be explained to and/or experienced by this character.

This gives you an easy path to explain things about your world to the reader, because everything is also being explained to the character. Once you've given your reader an on-ramp to your created world, bringing in other characters who are more complex, crazier, higher up in politics, etc. to star in other books is much easier, because you aren't trying to explain the world at the same time.

As an example: Mercedes Lackey has written like 50 books in her Valdemar series, around different characters, set in many different times and cultures. The first trilogy was about a 13YO peasant girl who is selected to become part of the main kingdom's magical police force, the Heralds. Through her literal schooling and training, she learns about the kingdom, magic, history, culture, society, and neighboring countries. From there, Lackey had the freedom to add on other characters and countries as she saw fit in future books. Some stories are set over a thousand years before her original trilogy; some are set thousands of miles away and barely interact with the main kingdom if at all.

Outsider/Isolated Child Who Becomes Chosen One is a classic opener: the Belgariad, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, The Dark Is Rising, The Wizard of Oz, Menolly from Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall series, I'm sure you can think of more. Having other wiser characters teach your Chosen One about the world not only lets you do world-building in a way which is relevant to the plot, it opens up lots of places to introduce other characters/settings/nations/cultures/etc. who can then be the focus of future stories.

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    Related point on the Belgariad: the series was originally intended to be 3 books called "Garion", "Ce'Nedra" and "Kal Torak", each following Garion's journey but focussing on their eponymous character. You can still see traces of it, with how Garion takes more of a backseat towards the end of "Queen of Sorcery" and Ce'Nedra gets left behind in "Castle of Wizardry". So, the protagonist/"reader perspective" remains the same, but the "prime actor"/main character changes - which makes the choice of "first character" important, even if you're not following their story. – Chronocidal Mar 12 '18 at 16:22
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    +1 for Valdemar ;-) I lent the Storm Warning/Rising/Breaking books to a friend because that's where I started and it was too confusing for her. Lent the Arrows trilogy to another friend and it was the perfect entry-point. – sezmeralda Mar 12 '18 at 19:34
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    @sezmeralda You really do have to start with Arrows. After that you can kind of read in in-universe chronological order if you like, but publication order works best, I think. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 12 '18 at 21:13
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    @LaurenIpsum "This gives you an easy path to explain things about your world to the reader, because everything is also being explained to the character." - a very good reason to use this type of character. My worry was exactly that as expressed in the comments: I don't want people to feel lost or confused, yet, I want some reason to introduce this world to the readers in an interesting manner... without having to explain or tell them... I want to "show" them. – Carlo Mar 15 '18 at 20:04
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Start by writing about a character into whom you have the most insight, about whom you have the most to say. Art is about vision. It is about seeing what others do not see and transforming it into words so that they can see it.

This is not as highfalutin as it may sound. A character becomes compelling, becomes worth devoting our time to as readers, insofar as we recognize them as human. The foundation of great storytelling it to create characters who read human, and who continue to read as human when put under pressure. This is true from the merest potboiler to the most profound work of literature. Human recognizes human.

If you can write a character that reads as human, that continue to read as human when you put them under stress, and that undergoes a recognizable story arc, you will have a salable story. The best character to start with it the one you best understand.

  • You may have nailed the reason why I posted this question without myself realizing why exactly I did (if that makes sense). The character that I initially thought to write about first, and spent hours trying to flesh out his story, is actually a character I don't quite understand so much myself, as he is supposed to be mysterious. Perhaps then he should be brought into the picture later. – Carlo Mar 12 '18 at 13:59
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Does it really matter what type of character to start a series with?

Most of the time: Yes.

A lot of longer series have an overarching storyline. I am thinking about Black Dagger for example because the (English) books switch their point of view with every book (as fas as I know; the German ones switch every three books, but I have been told the German ones are basically just the English ones broken into multiple parts).

Basically that series had a group of people doing stuff. They've been doing stuff for quite some time without a lot of action (well, without any difference in the kind of action) happening. And then someone from the outside joined - which is the first character that is used as a main character for a book. This is the point where things start to get into motion. Where new stuff happens. Where new characters start joining over the course of weeks/months/years.

If you want an overarching plot where all the different characters have little stories for themselves you should think about when things start to go from "(relatively) ordinary stuff happens" to "weird/crazy/unusual/dangerous/... stuff happens" and especially which character is somehow tangled up the most in this - for example by thinking about who the first contact with something is. That is your starting character.

Another story with different characters is the "Otherworld" series. There are three sisters. The first book is about "The Witch", the second about "The Cat" and the third about "The Vampire". Then the fourth is from the perspective of the witch again, the fifth from the cat, ...

In this case every character has their own story and their own things to do, but they regularly meet each other. They spend a lot of time together, but the other two don't have so important stuff happening to them personally. The focus is on one of them in each book, even if the overall stuff happening is happening to all of them, possibly at the same time.

Conclusion: The overarching story is what defines which character's turn it should be.

If you want every person to be completely different and independent from each other, except for a few very rare occasion compared to the amount of books you want to write (and that would need to be a lot) then you can go and read the above statement again, in a different light: the events of the time define who's turn it is. You will want to make sure that the reader knows when something happens in comparison to what other books already tell. Therefore you will want to make sure that certain events can be observed from different books and that may give you a timeline you can use to decide which character is influenced the most by an event - which again is your character for the book.

Other than that I would make sure that the first character is very likeable - you want to make sure that people pick up that book, get a feeling for your style and want to read the next one. After a couple of books they will know that each one can be different and they will expect this, allowing you to experiment a bit more - don't take too many risks with the first one.

  • Great suggestion. I was also wondering about the overarching story, if not starting at 'when things change from normal to abnormal' - so to speak -whether to start in the middle, or hop around. I suppose later books could start at different points (chronologically speaking), but typically does make sense, as you point out, to start there as you mentioned. – Carlo Mar 12 '18 at 13:53
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    @bumpy That's where virtually all stories start: When something disrupts the status quo. If nothing does, you have little or no leverage to actually launch a plot, and your readers will get bored very quickly. This is why it's generally bad to start with exposition about worlds, characters, history, etc., because until something actually happens, the reader has no motivation to keep reading. – thanby Mar 12 '18 at 16:04

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