Sara Shepard is the author of the Pretty Little Liars series (the newest of which–Pretty Little Secrets—you can begin reading on Figment here). Pretty Little Secrets recounts what happened during the winter break between book four, Unbelievable, and book five, Wicked. It’s full of secrets you never thought you’d learn!
I often start an idea for a novel with characters—a scene, a bunch of traits, a conversation. It never works the other way around—I have to have a picture of the people I’ll be writing about in my head before I begin. With Pretty Little Liars, I wrote up a fact sheet of random details about each of the four girls I would be focusing on: how Aria’s kooky family had just returned from Iceland, how Hanna was a shoplifter, how Emily had a crush on a girl, and how Spencer was part of every club in school and secretly listened to sports radio to relax. Little did I know I’d be writing fourteen books about these girls, though. Little did I know I’d get to know them so well.
When I started out writing the series, the plan was for the series to be four books in total: the perfect arc for a single diabolical A. That also seemed like an appropriate length for each of the four main characters to work out their essential problems, the secrets that had gotten them in trouble in the first place: Hanna’s eating and daddy issues, Spencer’s feud with her sister, Emily’s questions over her sexuality, and Aria’s strife with keeping the secret of her father’s affair. However, by the middle of book two, Flawless, I found out that the series was doing so well that the publisher wanted to add four more books, for a total of eight books in all. And after the TV show took off, the series was extended to twelve books, and then fourteen. Cue panic. How was I going to come up with more ways for the characters to grow and change?
Pretty Little Liars is complicated because there are a lot of moving parts in each book: mystery, complicated backstory, humor, romance, scary A notes, and soapy front-stories to keep the pages turning. It was sometimes hard figuring out which sorts of turns the mystery would take (though I’ve always known who all of the As are from the very start), but I never had much trouble developing the characters throughout each book. In fact, with every new PLL novel, I got to know each girl better and anticipated what sorts of decisions she’d make and directions she’d go next. Even though the girls’ front stories are sometimes outlandish (Spencer goes on a search for her birth mother, Aria moves in with Sean’s uber-perfect family, A sends Hanna to a mental hospital), I always ask myself one essential question when writing the chapters: do these plots make sense for the girls’ central wants and needs? What sort of plot would best bring out their struggles?
Emily, for instance, has always battled with her identity and sexuality. She’s also held a candle (perhaps obsessively so) for Ali. I hope that her stories in the books reflect those issues, whether they’re about a surprising crush on a boy or her journey to Amish country because A told her Ali would be there. Neither of those plots would make sense for Aria, Spencer, or Hanna—they particularly resonate with Emily because of who she is. We believe (at least I hope) that Emily would impersonate an Amish girl because she loves Ali so much; the other girls might not do that. And her relationship with Isaac, a change from her crushes on girls, is particularly interesting because she has to ask herself a lot of tough questions about who she really is—he’d just be a run-of-the-mill boyfriend for Aria, Spencer, or Hanna. So I try not to just make random stuff happen to the Liars; each of their plotlines should make sense to who they are. It’s helped to flesh them out as characters, and it’s definitely kept things interesting!
Another thing I think of when developing the characters over a series of books is what their end goal is. Usually this ties into their insecurities and needs, and usually it’s a gradual progression over time. Take Hanna: she starts out the series as an insecure girl with an unappreciative boyfriend and a snarky best friend; all she cares about is popularity. But I knew that I wanted Hanna to grow up a lot throughout the books, realizing that popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, eventually, dating someone who she once wouldn’t have dreamed of—Aria’s younger brother, Mike. Knowing that this was where I wanted to go, I was able to make things happen to Hanna in the pages that would help her get there.
If you’re lucky enough to be writing about the same characters over a series of books, as I have been, all I can say is that you should have a pretty clear picture of who they are in the beginning, with a goal of who you want them to be at the end. That said, though, once you know these characters well enough, let them take a left turn here and there. Let them have a crush on someone unexpected. Let them surprise you. That’s the best thing about staying with the same girls through fourteen books: I’ve gotten to know them so well that often they dictate the story, not me. They’re my best friends in many ways, and I can’t imagine not writing about them. So who knows, maybe there will be Pretty Little Liars: The College Years. Or maybe I’ll just write their further adventures in a private journal, simply to keep them alive.