If Walls Could Talk: Writing Series Characters

M.H. Norris

Curating the All the Petty Myths anthology has been a unique experience. Along with getting some fun stories that I can’t wait to share with you all, and yes I promise we’ll be sharing them soon, I got to set together a project that’s been in the works for a number of years.

I’ve also gotten to do something that, as I writer, I haven’t really tried yet.

When I started developing Midnight, I honestly didn’t think Rosella’s story would develop the way it did. I thought it would be one of those projects I did because it was an idea I’d had for years, and then I would move on to the next project.

But somewhere in the process, James and I realized that Dr. Rosella Tassoni had the potential to carry her own series. As you all know, about six months or so ago, I announced that the anthology will feature the first story in her series.

I was talking with someone. They asked me how my writing was going. I mentioned that we are putting the finishing touches on my next story, then they asked me an interesting question I’m not sure I’ve been asked before.

“Do you get involved in the story?”

As a writer, I feel to an extent you almost have to. There have been times I’m writing, and the scene takes a turn from what I was thinking, and goes its own direction because that’s what the character wants to do.

I also mentioned, that since Rosella is a series character, I have to get inside her head more than other characters. Because the more and more we get into the story, the more I need to know to carry her longer into the series. There is nothing worse for a series of fiction than a character who is flat and doesn’t grow.

In fact, as I finish Midnight, I’m beginning to draft her first full-length novel and that’s something I’m having to address. For both you, as readers, and me, as a writer, her story in the upcoming anthology was a chance for us to get to know her and who she is.

Now though, I have to take the information and the events of that story and go, “What now?”

That leads to something else I absolutely hate but see all too often in stories. A character goes through this story, and then proceeds to act as if nothing has happened and nothing has changed.

No.

Just as we as people are shaped by circumstances and events in our lives, so are our characters.

Let me give you two examples.

We’ll start with TNT’s recently-renewed The Librarians. As most of you may know, the show just finished its third season and it was announced yesterday that they are getting a fourth season. But before the show, there were three TV movies feature Flynn Carson played by Noah Wyle.

For the first season, Flynn is in less than half the episodes; in the second, he’s in a few more; this past season he’s in seven out of ten.

There’s an episode near the end of this last season where Flynn has someone point out to him just how much he’s grown and changed since that first movie. He’s done a fair bit of growing over the last few seasons thanks to his new friends and co-workers.

We meet a young Flynn Carson in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, the first movie, who seems perfectly content to continue to be a professional student for the rest of his life (anyone else who watched the movies ever wonder just what his student loan debt looked like, what with the number of degrees he had?). The Flynn we meet has no knowledge of the real world that isn’t found in a class.

So when he gets a mysterious invitation to a job interview at the Metropolitan Library, he takes it. He becomes The Librarian and learns that there is so much more to the world than what is found in his classes.

Flynn is easily one of my favorite fictional characters, joining the ranks of the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Chuck.

Now, Flynn’s hyper-intelligence has been smoothed out a little and, thanks to the new Librarians (long story), he finally has a team to work with and people who can match his wit (and keep him in his place because he need that).

The Librarians did something interesting here with Flynn’s character. They spent three TV movies establishing him as a unique hero who was often the thin line between evil spilling out into the world and the balance being maintained.

Then, in the course of the pilot, Flynn is presented with a handful of other people who can do it alongside him. He went from being one Librarian to one of many. You see a bit of a crises there. Using hints he’s dropped, especially in his limited appearances in the first season, we know he’s been The Librarian for a little over a decade and a lot has happened in that time.

If there’s one way to develop a character, it’s to turn their world upside down. That’s why the starting point the show chose worked so well for them.

That was something I faced with Rosella. In fact, her circumstances and her starting point changed several times over the course of the initial drafts of Midnight. I had to keep asking myself why am I starting here.

Why am I starting here and where am I going? How is she going to take it and how is it going to shape and grow her character?

Shawn Spencer, from Psych, is another character whose growth helped carry the show. It’s funny to watch the first season and then the last and see how much he changed. Yes, Shawn is the same person, and that’s not questioned, but he does grow up over the course of 8 seasons.

We meet a Shawn Spencer who has not owned up to responsibility. He’s had 27 jobs in the space of about 10 years and has moved all over world in that time. He gets into the whole psychic thing because he’s backed into a corner and it’s the easiest way out.

I think the Shawn Spencer who we said goodbye to in the finale laughs a little when he thinks back to those days. While he is still childish and immature, this is a Shawn who has stayed in one place for the better part of a decade, found something he actually enjoys, and has done a little growing up.

Shawn is one of my favorite examples of a character growing up because he proves the point that while a person can remain intrinsically the same, they can change quite a bit too. While Season 8 Shawn probably cringes and then laughs a bit at the antics of his Season 1 self, Season 1 Shawn would probably not believe you if you told him what he’d be like in just a few short years.

We went from a man who saw responsibility as a dirty word to one who took it on willingly.

But another thing to note about Shawn’s character is his relationship with his father. We piece together what happened throughout the course of the show. Sometime in Shawn’s senior year of high school his own father arrested him for stealing a car to impress a girl.

That caused Shawn and his father to become estranged and they would remain that way for the better part of the decade between that point and the beginning of the show. Even once the show began it would take a while for the two to cease hostilities and even longer to have something that resembles a functional relationship.

But repairing that relationship helps both characters grow and develop.

Transforming Rosella from a one-off character to a series character made me question who we would see again, and who is only going to appear in this one story; her relationships with the people around her needed solidified, or changed. That’s something I can play with as time goes on and I already have some plans regarding it.

Another fun one to take a look at is Sarah Jane Smith, especially because you she develops radically over time. Her first serial, The Time Warrior, lets us meet a 22-year-old Sarah Jane Smith whose spunk, persistence to get to the heart of a matter (because, after all, she is a journalist), and her insane amount of pure dumb luck make her a character you quickly fall in love with.

35 years later, at the beginning of The Sarah Jane Adventures, we find a vastly different but essentially the same, Sarah Jane. This older woman is someone who was forever changed by her time with the Doctor. We know from her appearance in “School Reunion” that the years weren’t always great to her—and that for quite a while she didn’t know how to handle life on her own.

But even between “School Reunion” and The Sarah Jane Adventures we see a change. It’s as if her brief time with David Tennant’s Doctor allowed her to find the girl the world fell in love with in The Time Warrior again and to go out and do what she does best once more.

For those of you who read The Whole Art of Detection you found your first look at Rosella. I found it amusing to spend some time writing a Rosella who’s a bit older than the one in Midnight. She wandered into that story a bit by accident but it was something that fit rather well and I couldn’t resist.

But there is also a reason I kept her appearances to a minimum—and, besides what was relevant to the plot, you don’t find out a whole lot about her. Some of it is because I haven’t certain decisions yet. Some of it is to surprise you.

Sarah Jane Smith is a character we see for most of her life, her story left hanging when her actress, Elisabeth Sladen, passed away, with the simple words “and the story goes on…forever.”

The BBC does a good job at growing her character through her time with The Doctor, her reappearance in the twenty-fifth Anniversary special, her Big Finish spin-off, and then on to New Who. Sarah Jane is an excellent character to study when looking at developing a character through stages of their life.

Follow me for a second.

Most book and television series only show a character over the course of a few years, but with Sarah Jane we are able to see her grow and develop over the course of decades. From the young journalist who assumes her aunt’s identity to get a story, to the older woman who is still using the title of journalists to hunt down alien activity on Earth and continue to protect it.

Sarah Jane came in the feminist movements of the 1970s, when the BBC decided they need a new third Doctor female companion who didn’t fawn over the Doctor and go “yes Doctor” or “of course Doctor,” returning to the style of companion featured in the first and second Doctors’ eras. In fact, Sarah Jane would spend most of her first serial distrusting him. Sarah Jane was, and is, a fiercely independent person.

We see this in the beginning of The Sarah Jane Adventures when she fights tooth and nail against the kids who are offering to help her.

Thinking about it, it’s kinda heartbreaking that Sarah Jane spends so much of her life alone. Sure, until 1999 she has her Aunt Lavinia but she doesn’t know about the Doctor and how it completely changed how Sarah Jane sees the world.

She had nobody and thought that the one person who would understand died soon after he dropped her off..

Sarah Jane is a character I’ll look at later on when I’m getting further and further along in a series. Because her story lasted for decades and still goes on…

So what separates a good series from a great one?

It’s the characters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here now as I wrap up. People come for the premise and they stay for the characters. And that’s the challenge I find myself facing now. Making sure Rosella is someone people are willing to stick with for a while.