There is plenty of information on how to draft characters for a single story, or characters that follow an important arc throughout a (small) number of stories.

Are there any techniques for designing protagonists for an open-ended series, though? Think of TV series like the typical space operas, detectives that solve case after case, etc. They typically start out with a bunch of more or less diverse characters who may, over the course of the (tv or book) series, evolve into initially unforeseen directions. The challenge I'm seeing is that none of the characters can (or even should) be tailored for the initial couple of adventures they face, nor is a pre-defined arc for these characters set in stone that they could be designed for.

What is the approach to take? Is aiming for a certain degree of diversity or conflict potential among the protagonists sufficient, and the actual traits can more or less randomly be distributed as I see fit? Or should I rather try to find a couple of examples for how different combinations of characters would interact, argue, or complement each other to evaluate how interesting or viable different sets of protagonists might turn out over the course of different adventures?


4 Answers 4


There are two cardinally different ways you can treat your characters in a series.

In some series, the characters remain the same, facing the "challenge of the week". They do not undergo any significant change themselves. A famous example of such structure is Star Trek, the Original Series. Kirk, Spock and McCoy do not undergo any character development in the three years of the series' run. In fact they remain fixtures to such an extent that each got their TV Trope: The Kirk, The Spock, The McCoy. In each episode the setting is different, but the audience can expect the same interactions from the characters. A significant part of the series' attraction lies in those interactions.

For a series to pull this off, the characters must from the start have the traits that would enable interesting interactions. They need to be on opposing ends of some spectrum, so that in each other's company they shine the brighter. And at the same time, each needs to be engaging, have enough depth that the interactions don't get repetitive.

A literary example of the same style of storytelling is Sherlock Holmes: from story to story, Holmes doesn't change. Neither does Watson. Each time, we are curious to see how Holmes will solve the mystery. The innovation of the mystery, combined with the familiar character of Holmes, can carry the series indefinitely.

In other series, significantly more focus is given to character development. Personalities evolve. The character at the end of a season isn't the same as they were at the start of the season - they learn, they change, they are affected by the story. A greater part of the screen-time is given to character development, as opposed to "the challenge of the week", episodes have an effect on the characters, including repercussions. Dollhouse comes to mind as an example. Or Buffy.

For such a premise, you need to give your characters, at least the main ones, room to change and evolve. They need to be sufficiently complex to support an internal conflict, preferably something that can be explored again and again - there needs to be some sort of tension inside them. For example, Buffy has the ongoing issue of being the Slayer vs. wanting to have a normal life. Various aspects of this are explored. (There are also other issues, for the same character, and for others - one character cannot carry a series on their shoulders.) So when you plan the character, you define an inner tension for them right from the start. Maybe, as the story progresses, you will find that this isn't enough, so you resolve it, and add another issue instead - like Willow's nerdy identity got "outgrown", and she got the magic issues instead. But you start with something. You don't start with characters who are already pretty much where they want to be.

In either case, you also need to consider how the characters would interact with each other. If you're planning a team, you need complementary traits. Look here for more information. If you want conflicts and opposing factions, consider what conflicts can be had, and plan for them, put in place characters who would have reason not to like each other. Put in the tension, then you can play with it however best suits your stories.

  • I know comments are not for compliments but I just had to say I think you picked excellent examples. Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 18:58
  • "the characters must from the start have the traits that would enable interesting interactions" - indeed, and I'm wondering specifically how to design this kind of characters. Actually, I think both of your cases are not too different in this phase of designing characters, as the series with character development may have as little concrete plans on where to get its characters by, say, season 3 (unless it's really a series whose season-spanning arc is planned long ahead), as the series that won't feature much character development, anyway.
    – F-H
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 21:43

The first thing to note, if you want these characters to be capable of being protagonists, is the potential for an arc. This means that the character must want to be somewhere, be it physically, emotionally, or in status, away from where they are now.

This makes them start the journey. It doesn't even have to be the thing that they end up getting to by the end of the story (that could change as their character develops), it just has to be something that initially makes them take action.

For example, in a romance, a man may be dissatisfied with his career, so he ends up quitting his job, getting a new one away from his country, and then, in finding a woman who is willing to help him with culture shock and stick with him through the motions, he falls in love. After that, he wishes to find a way to make her understand that the love he feels for her is more than platonic/convince her that he's worthy/any other romance arc. The initial motivation got the ball rolling, put him in a situation where a plot can sprout from it, but after that, the conflict could be anything related to this new situation.

If the protagonist doesn't want something at the beginning, instead, make them satisfied in their situation, then introduce something to disrupt their satisfaction. The same thing applies to before; there needs to be a way to get the ball rolling, but ultimately the end goal doesn't necessarily have to be 'become satisfied like I was in the beginning'; in fact, ideally it shouldn't be, they should have learned there's more to life than their idle satisfaction.

Anyway, that's my take on writing protagonists rather than just any old character.

  • 1
    I think you may have missed the part of the question where these are characters in an ON-GOING series. You've answered as if it is a protagonist of a one-off.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Sep 10, 2018 at 23:23
  • 1
    I'm not convinced there's much of a difference. You write arcs, either one for the duration of the story, or in many smaller threads. Ultimately an Ongoing series will end and can be considered a single massive story, so the model fits either way. Being aware of that from the start aids in making narratively satisfying endings rather than sorta dropping off where it stood (I'm looking at you 'Lost'...) Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 15:19
  • @Ruadhan2300 That is exactly my point. You need a lift-off point from your arcs, and arcs can lead into arcs and lead into more arcs for as long as the series needs to go on for. Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 16:16

Don't write characters, find characters.

I'm a strong believer that open-ended stories should exist in open worlds. Rather than telling a unique and pivotal tale of daring-do they tell the story of a group of people whose deeds may be extremely impactful but are also just the stuff that happens to them. They are actually unremarkable in many ways; such things are also happening elsewhere to other people in that same world all the time. This approach requires that the world of the story be extremely fully realised with many things going on, only some of which effect a group of characters involved in any tale set therein.

Once you have a world like that you can pick out individuals and tell their story for as long or short a period of time as you care to, making sure that the world develops as you go through time in that universe. The best two examples of such extremely well developed worlds I can think of are Bas-Lag and Paolo Bacigalupi's biopunk post-apocalypse world where The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker etc.. are set.

In both cases tales told in that world can only be placed in time when compared to other events mentioned within the texts rather than being interdependent on each other. Any and all the narratives not starring the same characters could in fact be happening simultaneously. The worlds are complex enough to allow parallel groups to have all their very own adventures without them necessarily overlapping in any way.

Once you have a world complex enough that events can and do unfold without POV characters you can pick up the people involved in a given string of events and tell their particular tale. This is what I mean by "finding characters"; you aren't writing a group of characters that need to do particular things but rather telling the story of a group of events that happen to involve the same character(s). This is then a story and character(s) that can go on as long as you can A. maintain a concrete world-line and B. keep the characters alive and interesting in that world.

Hopefully that makes sense and helps with your problem, obviously hit me up in the comments for extra details on anything that needs clarification.

  • Large parts of your answer seem very close to my thinking. Still, the actual part about finding the characters is a bit nebulous. Do I just randomly pick some combinations of characters that would make sense in the time and place the series of (possibly unrelated) events they should be present for happens, and check character combination is the most promising one in terms of possible character-related storylines?
    – F-H
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 20:07
  • Usually I pick situations from within the world that I want to examine; for example, what happens when someone gets control of a weapon designed to defend a planet and uses it to action a personal vendetta. I can then find a character who'd be willing to do such a thing, examine their personality and background decide if they have a supporting cast and how big that might be and go from there.
    – Ash
    Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 15:27

It has nothing to do with characters. It's about plot and situation. Long running series place the protagonists (plural) in an ongoing situation. It is the situation or environment that plays the role of the antagonist (the constant) rather than characters which are merely transitional place-holders.

Cops will always have villains to catch and murders to solve. Doctors will always have patients to save and conditions to diagnose. Lawyers will always have cases to try and clients to defend or prosecute.

Essentially the scenario is that protagonists can win battle but they can never win the war. It should always be noted that if the protagonists cannot be victorious in every battle - the public get bored.

  • "Cops will always have villains to catch and murders to solve. (...)" - yes, but who are the cops (/the doctors/the lawyers)? Is it an experienced and a young cop who clash on a makeshift vs. a by-the-book approach, but share a common addiction to coffee? Or is it a male and a female cop who superficially cannot stand each other, but have that constant obvious sexual tension between them that seems to scream "if just they weren't two cops working as a team"? Or is it three cops, the leader, the thinker, and the heart of the group? Do I just roll a dice? That's what I'm trying to figure out.
    – F-H
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 20:00

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