Writing Series for Immediacy: Life-Arcs and Props


I was thinking last night, lying in bed, waiting for sleep to claim me, about continuing items, events, relationships, and things (props) in series as a part of world-building. I’m not talking about the overreaching plot arcs: the serial killer who taunts the hero for multiple books until the hero finally tracks him down, or the killer kidnaps the hero’s boyfriend (Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta); the temptation of a dark coin tied to a fallen angel buried under the floor of a basement (Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden); the quirks and fears of a superior investigator that keep him tied to his grief (Monk). Not those kinds of plot arcs. I’m talking about the life-style-arcs that give immediacy to a character, and that make the reader feel like he knows the character personally, an old and valued friend. These are important to a writer, as way of creating reader relationships with any character, but especially with a series character. They need to be carefully crafted to make the character more real. There’s a proper name (isn’t there always) but for the sake of this post, lets call them life-arcs and props.

In my own RL (real life) I have continuing life-arcs. I paddle. I have tendonitis in my elbows from typing and jewelry making. I see a massage therapist once a week for a painful session of tendon-fascia breakdown. I eat smoothies for breakfast every morning, with herbs blended in them. I drink a lot of tea, both iced and hot. I have a prop that I carry everywhere with me—an insulated, drip-resistant sippy cup with a straw. It doesn’t sound like much, but I have to keep the arcs going in order to live a comfortable life. When one of these arcs breaks down, my life changes in unpleasant ways. When I don’t paddle, I forget to exercise. When I don’t make jewelry, I don’t do things that lift me creatively. When I miss a massage appointment, I ache (like now. Goddess Di’s been out of town, and I haven’t seen her in 2 weeks.) When the blender broke some 13 months ago, still under warranty, I didn’t get my smoothies for over 6 weeks, so didn’t get enough fruit. I didn’t go hungry, mind you—I ate healthy cereal. But I didn’t get enough fruit and my body protested. When I don’t drink tea, I am drawn to colas, which are bad for me. When I forget my sippy cup (filled with iced tea BTW) I get thirsty. These are life-arcs in my own life that have to be maintained. As a writer, I have to maintain my character’s life-arcs and props throughout a series as well.

Jim Butcher uses several life-arcs and props, like his car (an oft-repaired VW beetle) his relationships with MAB (evil queen) and the old guy (Ebenezer, I think? who calls him Hoss) and Molly, his apprentice. His dog is an ongoing series life-arc. His magical implements and his shield bracelet are important props to him and to the readers. His talking skull is a vital part of the book. The readers love all these and wait for mention and use of them.

In my own work, Thorn St. Croix is a vegetarian. She eats a lot of beans, nuts, and peanut butter for protein. She has to keep them on hand to replenish her caloric usage during fighting and spell-working. A life-arc in any particular book might be that she is getting low on PB. She also is not a classically trained magic-wielder, so her spells sometimes go wrong in disastrous ways. In one book, a spell she cast accidentally worked as a love potion on the small town’s chickens. The story needed a moment of comic relief and it gave me one. She is a very scarred, exceptionally short female, which means people react to her in unusual ways, and she has to have ladders in her kitchen to reach the top shelf. She carries a prop—her amulet necklace. And yes I made one for myself. J

Jane Yellowrock has Bitsa, her bastard rebuilt Harley. She is a tea drinker (okay that I stole from my own life. So sue me.) She has a big mouth. (Ditto for me.) And these things make her more than just a character to readers, they make her real. This morning, Joe (fan and jewelry maker/lapidary) IM’d me a virtual cup of tea on Facebook. They know Jane, so in many ways, they know me.

Anyone here know of a loved character’s life-arc or memorable prop that is a special favorite? Want to share? Have you remembered to make life-arcs for your characters? Even if you are writing a standalone, you need them. Share them with us? Share how they make you feel toward your characters?



24 comments to Writing Series for Immediacy: Life-Arcs and Props

  • Great post, Faith. These little details that make the charcater real are so easy to overlook, but make such a difference. And can be so useful in so many ways, too. Tea is important to Jane Little rock, which makes her real, but one day she forgets it and stops someplace she ordinarily wouldn’t. It enables you to put her someplace, anyplace really, that suits you as the writer, without it feeling forced or artificial. So much value from such a seemingly simple addition.

  • Thanks, Edmund. A well-used (as opposed to a well-crafted, thouth we need both) prop or life-arc can even be the sttrat of a novel or a short story. Jane stops for tea in a little diner on a lonely stretch of road. And the black-earth-witch behind the counter needs some skinwalker blood for a particularly nasty spell. (grins)

  • Sometimes the props can become characters themselves. Think of all the famous cars from films and tv. Starsky and Hutch, the Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team (a van), Magnum PI (a car and a helicopter), those are just a few off the top of my head. Likewise, JK Rowling used many props and arcs to bring locations and rituals alive. The whole train ride to Hogwarts and Bernie Botts Beans etc, etc. In fact, one reason her books got longer and longer was that she had to mention so many of these things for the satisfaction of the fans. Even something spoken can fall into this — I’m thinking of “Bond. James Bond.” There’s no limit to the ways you can utilize a character’s life to make her more real and more memorable. Thanks for giving me a little thought food.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for this post and for presenting it the way that you did. I’ve heard other people talk about characters needing quirks to seem real, but that’s always felt a little irrelevant (MC collects frog statues, so…) or contrived (villain carries a cane) to me so I didn’t know how to apply that sort of advice. But thinking about it instead as things that shape the character’s history and/or ways that they function on a day-to-day basis then that feels much more, as you say, immediate and relevant to me. Then you have things like: MC is a magpie and AS A CONSEQUENCE collects pretty things, or villain suffered from polio as a child which has shaped his character and also means he needs a cane. Again, thank you. Lots of tricky, interesting things to think about.

  • Stuart, good point! Jane’s Bitsa is becoming a character in the JY novels. Too much so, and I am thinking of ways to rein her back. And, um, I used the Bond, Jame Bond line in my WIP. It was fun!

    Hepseba, you got it perfectly! I love the idea that the MC is a magpie! A charmed human thief, maybe? 🙂

  • Faith, this is one of those annoyingly good posts which makes me realize how deficient I’ve been in past books. You are right, of course. These props and life-arcs can say so much about a character that you might otherwise over-explain. I need to do more of this.

  • Great post Faith! I love this idea, and these are things that I notice in the stuff I read. My MC comes from money, though she doesn’t make much now, and has family money so she likes her porche (research was fun for that) and has very floral, pretty taste (fancy lamps, antique tables) and so when she almost burns down her house, she’s looking for a place to direct the fire, and thinking “not the Tiffany lamps… not the antique dining table…” Another MC has a dog, and another, a vampire, bakes good cookies (an odd quirk for him).

  • HarryMarkov

    My character Samantha has a thing for making mental lists and checking the boxes, so that she knows when a plan will come together. On the same note, she always daydreams how a certain spell she cannot cast would go to boost her self esteem. 😀

    Anyway, these are subtleties that have to be noted down for the series bible, because if you work on multiple projects, you are bound to forget one of these props and arcs. 🙂

    Brilliant post.

  • Great stuff, Faith. I’ve been thinking about these, though I didn’t have a name for them. These props are great, and I’m going to develop my characters in such a way to incorporate these, and also use verbal ones.

    I just thought they were ‘things Joe Abercrombie’s characters repeat that make me laugh,’ like when Logan Ninefingers says, “You have to be realistic about these things,” or survives a fight and says, “I’m still alive.”


  • Aj — always happy to be annnoying. 🙂
    Actually, along with faults and weaknesses, the first things I put together with character creation is the props. Hepseba mentioned caracters with canes, and a cane was the first prop Thorn in the Rogue Mage series ever had. Of course it wasn’t *just* a cane… It was multi-use weapon, and also was veeery pretty.

    P-Emily, I LOVE the idea of the spell direction. It is a great way to both develop the character and to add conflict to her life. Paris Hilton with magic! Perfect!

  • Harry, you are so right. I have mixed up serial props before, and also quirky sayings.
    Sigh. I hope I caught them all before the book went to press.

    NGDave, Yes, and big yes! Sayings can be props. And, providing they aren’t overused, can be dialogue direction too. If a character says, “I’m still alive,” then you know who spoke without the *he said* after. It makes for tighter writing.

  • I have a character who likes to cook (He’s french), and another character needs to have progressive rock on while he works (I stole that from myself).

  • W.T. Good stuff. And if the music guy always has music on, then he has favorite bands, favorite head gear/earpieces, and soemtimes misses things due to the music, like unwelcome visitors or the delivery of a package. Great for plot furtherances.

    I just introduced a 3 star chef to my JY series. And I am loving the fun that food adds to a scene!

  • Ryl

    Thanks for this post, Faith. I don’t feel so ‘mary jane’, now, about stealing from myself. A couple of my main characters are musicians — and since I play classical guitar it’s one thing I don’t have to research quite so much.

    The personal rituals / quirks that folks, real and fictional, use to comfort themselves make them not only vulnerable but more real, more emotionally accessible.

  • Ryl, yes! I’ve noticed that when I get letters from fans, they are 99% about who the character is rather than what happened in the novels. The little things make them (characters, not fans) more real.

  • R.O. Kashmir

    An enlightening post, thanks Faith. I’d used these type of continuing arcs in my own writing. Just not really made the connection to how that worked into the craft. Like so much of what I’ve been reading here since David introduced me to MW at ConCarolinas your post gives me another step forward. A couple of examples that sprang to my mind while reading was my Revy Zimmerman’s twin Glock’s she calls Bert ‘n’ Ernie. Or how my feline humanoids in another story are all crazy for Cheeto’s, Pop-Tarts, and of course catnip. Now to take this lesson forward by making these props less accidental and more planned.

  • R.O. Glad it helped. And I LOVE the Bert ‘n’ Ernie guns! Fabulous!

  • Tom G

    I never occurred to me these characters quirks and props had a name. My UF MC Sable (an undead vampire hunter) loves her M&Ms (which I love too). Another character in a Fantasy, always mispronounces “and” as “und” and she has her sword “Tasheba” she dolts on.

    But your post has me thinking. All those quirks are what make the charactes we love so endearing. I’ve been so busy trying to cut the word count in my WIP, I’m afraid I’ve begun to remove some of the “character props.” Maybe that isn’t such a good idea.

    Food for thought.

  • Tom, props need to do double duty. Props that make us love characters also should meet a secondary need. In the JY series, Jane loves tea, but so does Katie, the vamp who hired her. Leo (head vamp) also perfers tea, so the tea is a bonding ritual that Jane dislikes, but she still loves tea.

    The Harley is her only transporation, and her Beast won’t ride anything else. Her Beast likes to smell the world in passing. Double duty.

    If a prop or life-arc doesn’t do double duty, if you can’t actually use it to foster conflict or make conflict worse, that’s a good one to cut. Otherwise, they help us to love characters. And that makes for fans.

  • I don’t leave the house without my rings. Even if I’m in my worst clothes, no makeup and my hair in a ponytail because I didn’t feel like washing it, I’ll still put my rings on. With that in mind, Kestrel has a piece of jewelry (in the second book) that she won’t take off, even though she keeps telling herself she should. It makes her feel connected to…something. Sorry, you’ll have to wait for that little detail. 😀

    In thinking about the tea Jane loves, I have what might be called the anti-prop. Kestrel can’t stand salted fish. Won’t eat it. Which is unusual for a sailor, since it’s a bit of a staple, but she just can’t stomach it. I haven’t revealed why, and may never, since it doesn’t have much to do with the story. But you never know when someone will ask her and I’ll have to tell!

  • Too cool! Kes has a history, and the reason she won’t eat salt fish is tied up in that. Just knowing that there is a mystery is a prop! The jewelry she won’t take off? I like!

    And you do have cool rings! Wish I could wear rings! (She said, her voice ripe with envy.)

  • Beatriz

    Sometimes it works the other way, too.

    My alter ego (my ren faire persona) has a thing for spiders. It started out innocently enough. I wanted a dagger with a lovely **purple** stone** that happeded to also have a spider. People assumed the spider was what I was after and began giving spiders to me. I started wearing various spiders on my faire garb. One thing led to another and now I wear my favorite spider necklace every day. In fact, it rarely comes off my neck. We won’t even mention my vanity plate references spiders. 🙂

  • Wonderful post, Faith. And yes, many of my characters have the life-arcs you’re talking about. In my as-yet-unpublished UF, my MC takes care of his Dad, who is borderline senile and unable to care fully for himself; he drinks Sumatran coffee, and only Sumatran; he drives a vintage 280Z — the Z-ster; and he likes to draw when he can find the time. Ethyn, in Thieftaker (who may soon be Ethan), has a limp from when he was in prison and lost part of his foot to infection; he has insinuated himself into the family life of his old lover who rejected him when he went to prison; he has a new lover who runs a tavern; he likes to read, but usually doesn’t make enough money to buy bound books, which were expensive in 1765 Boston; and he is stubbornly loyal to the British Crown, even as those around him begin to speak of throwing off tyranny.

  • B-Melissa, I am going to keep spider jewelry in mind for you!

    David, I love the Z-ster, the special coffee, and the care of an aging parent. Very clear props and arcs. Ethyn sounds very *real* for the time, with the maimed-by-infection foot. Since he can’t wear fancy boots with ease, he should have a hat he adores. With a feather in it. (grins) All thieves have a bit of flash to them!