by author, public speaker and YouTuber
Benjamin T. Collier.
Today I’m finishing off the list of Top 10 Mid-Series Shake-Ups by going over numbers 6-10, because that’s how math works. Again, I’ve put them in order of most frequently used (by my reckoning), which is not the same thing as best or most recommended. If you missed the first 5 you can check them out in my previous blog post. Happy writing!
- A hero turns villain.
Nothing causes a shake-up quite like a character becoming (or turning out to have always been) a villain. Especially when it is a beloved character. It is also one of the most difficult twists to do right. Audiences invest a lot of emotion into well-written characters, and sudden changes or reveals of such a drastic degree can throw a lot of that investment out the window.
One of the most infamous failed attempts at this was when the Marvel comics revealed that Captain America had been a Hydra agent all along. Not only was this way outside of his known, established character, and not only did it go directly against everything he represented, but it was also inconsistent with known facts about the character’s behaviour prior to that point, making it clear that this was a recent decision by the writers and not something they’d had planned from the beginning. Since pulling off this kind of twist hinges on consistency, I’m going to provide the link to my blog post where I discuss Consistency in greater detail.
Put simply, your character’s reasons for turning (or having been secretly a villain all along) must line up with known aspects of their character in order for it to make sense to your audience. There are plenty of ways to make “the wrong side” feel like a legitimate choice for characters, especially if they have tragic stories where they are more likely to make desperate choices. If you want the character to remain at least somewhat sympathetic, then you will have to present their reasons as being justified, at least in their own mind.
If the character has been a villain for a while, then you will need to be careful with scenes that show their inner character, so as not to either give anything away too early, nor have them clearly thinking and feeling a certain way that contradicts the coming revelation. This is easy enough done if you avoid using their POV, which, in writing, means never narrating a scene from their perspective but always someone else’s, and on film it means you avoid or severely limit scenes that show them on their own. If they are being secretive about whose side they’re really on, then of course they will act like one of the good guys while they’re being watched, but when they are on their own they have little reason to put on a show, and of course if the narrative is from their perspective then the audience should know what they are thinking.
This kind of twist offers a lot of opportunity to show how other characters react and adapt, not only to the shock but also to the changing dynamics. Do old friends now have to fight each other? If it is a beloved character then you may want to have them switch sides again, and rejoin the forces of good. Wisdom will be necessary to decide when the time for that is right. Do it too soon and it will feel half-assed and half-hearted – not really having any meaning. But wait too long, have them go too deep into the dark side, and they may no longer be a beloved character. If you do plan on bringing your character back into the fold then give your audience time to deal with the initial shock, get used to the new normal, and build anticipation to see the character’s return.
- Change of leadership.
This can be one of the more uncomfortable changes to go through, both for your characters and for your audience. Leaders tend to be among the more popular characters – not the team captains like Cyclops or Leonardo, but the coaches like Professor X and Splinter. The relationship between leaders and their team tend to parallel the relationship between parent and child. Both your characters and your audience come to think of them as father/mother figures, and so, losing them tends to feel like losing a parent. And having them immediately replaced by another feels like suddenly having to deal with a new step dad before even having the chance to mourn.
Even less popular leaders (or worse, the leaders of the bad guys) are a big part of the overall feel of a series. When leadership changes, the characters suddenly have new dynamics to navigate, new expectations, new challenges. It can be an interesting way of forcing your characters into situations beyond their comfort zones, or just to see how they handle different kinds of pressure.
The leader does not always have to die to be replaced. Sometimes they can just be fired by somebody higher up, or step down if they feel they’ve made an unforgivable error. They can even be rehired later on if you only want the change to last for a season.
If the character coming into leadership is someone who has already been around for a while then the change can be less scary (or more, depending on the character). And if they were already second-in-command then the transition can feel much more natural. Changes will still occur in how the characters interact with each other under the new power dynamics. Coming into power tends to change people, bring issues to the surface that they didn’t realize they had, often having to do with their own experiences with authority figures. So keep that in mind when deciding how to approach character development, and whether they will succumb to their issues or rise above them to become stronger.
- Coming out.
Depending on your audience, this will either cause a drop in ratings or an increase, so it is always a calculated risk, but it is one of the more popular twists in modern storytelling since the LGBTQ community is still struggling to find a significant catalogue of characters they can personally relate to (since the community is itself so diverse).
Whichever character you do this with would by fact of the matter have to become more vulnerable and open with their comrades once they choose to reveal this information. Sexuality is very deeply tied to a person’s sense of identity, so for secretive characters to come out will force them into a very uncomfortable place, if this character is normally very open about things then you will have to come up with a (believable) reason why they have tried to keep it under wraps.
Before going down this road, see my post about Consistency, as it may help you avoid some of the credibility issues that some writers face when having their characters come out. I actually don’t recommend ‘coming out’ twists unless it’s something that the writer has had planned from the very beginning. Making this kind of change to a character part way through a series tends to come across as ingenuine. It is always better if this is something that you as the writer already knew about the character well in advance rather than something done just for ratings, since changing a character’s personality and then pretending that it’s not a change causes a loss of credibility as a writer, followed by a drop in audience faith.
Also, since inclusivity is the issue, I recommend researching which groups are not being represented as much in the media. Gay and bisexual orientations are the most common for characters coming out because they are the easiest changes to apply to a character without having to change too many other things, but if this is something the writer has been planning for some time then it shouldn’t actually be a ‘change.’ I don’t hear about a lot of hermaphrodite characters, but that’s clearly a born condition and something challenging to live with, so more characters with that condition would greatly help the diversity of characters in the media.
So your characters who have had engaging sexual tension for ages have finally hooked up/tied the knot/become official and now all of the fans who were bugging you to put the two of them together will finally shut up about it, right? WRONG! Because now those characters need to have kids – which you can also drag out for ages if you are so inclined.
Children are one of the clearest signs (and enforcements) of character development. They show that certain characters have matured and (if not) they force those characters to learn responsibility pretty quickly. They also tend to symbolize hope, since characters who don’t see much of a future for themselves may not bother to have kids (if it’s a matter of discussion). In a series, it also gives the audience something else to look forward to. Babies on long-running series literally grow up before the audience’s eyes (or at least the character does, even if the actors are repeatedly replaced). And child characters, by nature, have more character development over a shorter period of time than most mature characters who are already more set in their ways.
Depending on the medium of your story, you may have full control over when characters have children or, if working with live actors, you may find all the sudden that you have to improvise with the story you had in mind. Although there are always other ways of hiding a preggie belly, like just having the character disappear or sustain an injury and have to take time off work for a while, keep your audience in mind and consider if actually having the character pregnant at the same time can work for the story. You may be pleasantly surprised by audience feedback.
- Time jump.
I don’t mean this as a science fiction thing – unless you’re writing science fiction in which case maybe you can get away with it. Sometimes the storyline of a series reaches a certain plateau – all conflicts have been resolved, all threads have been tied, and all the characters are in a place you don’t really want to move them from, at least for a while. If you’ve got all that going for you then it may be time to just end the series. But if you’re not British, or you simply love writing too much, then ending the series just because you’re on a high note may be the farthest thing from your mind. In that case the right move for you may be to jump the story ahead a few years, months, or decades depending on the scope of the overarching story.
As a series shake-up, this has many benefits. It allows you to make quick character changes that would normally take several episodes or even seasons to develop believably. Most notably it allows you to ‘age-up’ any children in the series and see what they’re like as older children or even adults. It even allows you to introduce new babies, perhaps even from romances that were nowhere near happening in the previous episodes. Characters who were injured or incarcerated could be ready to get back to action after so much time has passed, and characters who have been training in one form or another could have mastered new skills by now.
If you had any characters ending the previous era in a positive state, like finding new relationships or enjoying retirement for example, a time jump also allows those characters to actually have the time to enjoy those things (from their perspective) before the new sets of challenges arrive. And fans who care about these characters and want to see them happy will appreciate that, even if it doesn’t last forever.
Make sure your time span is consistent along all characters though. Characters who were already on the older side of adulthood may not be as nimble as before. A major time jump is always a balancing act for finding the right time to do it. You may want to introduce or raise up a bunch of new characters but you may also lose some long-time favourites in the process. So consider it carefully.
As one of the bigger shake-ups that you can do, there is equally major risks and major rewards. That much change can make the audience excited to see what’s new, but they may also feel lost if too many of their favourite things are gone. Be sure to give them some anchors. I recommend taking at least one fan-favourite character and putting them in a position of wizened teacher (as long as it’s not completely against their personality). Seeing that character become something of a mother/father figure among the cast might help further the sense of home and make the audience feel more comfortable in the new era.
And that’s the list! Have any other ideas for mid-series shake-ups that I didn’t cover in this list? Let me know in the comments! Catch the top five on this list if you missed the previous post. And if you’d like more insights on writing in general you can check out my blog posts on writing starting with the Core Concept, or check out The Storyteller’s Handbook on Amazon.
Cheers!” ~ Ben
That was a lot of great advice on writing stories in a series. Thanks for your excellent tips, Ben!