Writing a New Series: A Guide to Creating a World from Scratch

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Editor's Note:

Meg Gardiner is the author of eleven critically acclaimed novels, including the Evan Delaney series, of which China Lake won the Edgar Award. Her latest thriller, Into the Black Nowhere, will be released on January 30th. Here, Meg offers us 5 tips for creating a fictional world in the beginning stages of writing a series.

Every novel I write needs two things: a compelling main character, and a story that hooks the reader. The first novel in a series needs more than that. It calls for either a story that continues beyond The End, or a protagonist whose job calls for more stories. Ideally both.

My new thriller, Unsub, is about a legendary killer and the young cop who hunts him. The Unsub—an unknown subject in a criminal investigation—starts killing again after twenty years, and Caitlin Hendrix must decipher his coded plan before he drags more innocents to the abyss.

I knew this novel would launch a series. That shaped how I wrote it. As in all my novels, I was creating a world from scratch—but this world requires room to grow. Fortunately, writing two other series (about journalist Evan Delaney, and forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett) helped prepare me to cook up the world of Caitlin Hendrix.

Here are five things a new series needs:

1. A hero or heroine who can handle the job

An everyman, caught up in events beyond their control, can be a terrific hero in a stand-alone novel. But a series protagonist needs characteristics that will carry them through multiple novels:

Skills— to do the job that will drive the series, book after book (cop, spy, thief…);
Secrets— that readers will thirst to uncover;
Fears— that hold them back, and they work to overcome;
An Achilles’ Heel— because invincibility is boring.

A heroine must shine. She must be multifaceted and intriguing. But characters must be more than a collection of quirks. (She plays the banjo! Eats popsicles at crime scenes! Trains racing badgers!) And while every hero needs a past, they shouldn’t come laden with so much baggage that they’d sink a cruise ship. Amnesia, triple identities, psychic abilities, a secret addiction to SPAM… add that up and it’s too much.

Mannerisms and eccentricities don’t make a character. A burning desire for justice does.

How the character defines justice — and seeks it — create distinctive, exciting stories.

2. A cast of characters who create a matrix of “real” life

Every character in a novel should illuminate the protagonist in a unique way. Relationships with recurring characters — friends, family, colleagues —bring to light different aspects of a protagonist’s personality. They also create a nexus that connects the hero to “regular” life outside the central conflict in the story.

Difficult or disruptive characters in the hero’s life can fuel subplots. And they can generate plots for future novels.

3. A world with roots that can deepen and flourish

The setting of a series becomes a living part of its ecosystem. Where does the hero live and work? Louisiana, Westeros, Future New York City? Do they have a neighborhood hangout where they can unwind? Even in fast-paced thrillers, people should have a chance to catch their breath. They need somewhere to enjoy a few minutes of down time.

In thrillers, you’re going to send your characters through hell. Give them a place to get a good cup of coffee.

4. Forces of antagonism

A story, it’s often said, is only as strong as its antagonist. Every novel must provide the heroine with an adversary. But a series heroine needs a nemesis —an inescapable foe. A Big Bad, a lifelong rival, or personal demons. And a series needs more than the bad guy of the day. It needs an overarching institutional, psychological, or moral antagonist. The System. Corruption. Hypocrisy. These are forces that mass against the heroine and can never be completely vanquished, but against which she’ll fight, refusing to surrender.

5. Unfinished business

People have histories. And futures. Parcel them out judiciously.

Be stingy. Give your characters a history — but in the first book, only hint at parts of it. Don’t pour out every secret. That way, you can draw it out in future books.

And create unresolved conflicts. Set up battles yet to come.

Every novel must work on its own — it should have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. But in a series, every book must also plant seeds that don’t pay off yet. A series novel is like a song that ends before the final chord. The melody leads toward the final note… but leaves us hanging. The music doesn’t resolve. In a series novel, as in a song, when a chord doesn’t resolve, we listen in anticipation, hoping, needing that resolution.

That’s suspense. And that keeps readers coming back for more.

Want more on writing? Download Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide.