Siblings sell a series. Virginia Heath explains how to develop a family with series potential while striking a balance between distracting side-character and enticing sequel bait.
As we all know, they can be both a blessing and a curse, but the relationships we have with them shape us and very often last a lifetime, so it is hardly surprising readers love to read family-based stories.
Siblings are perhaps the most fascinating- at least to me. I have always found the dynamic between brothers and sisters particularly fertile ground for my imagination. Perhaps because I am one of three myself, have two kids of my own and spent a decade teaching all manner of siblings in my former career as Head of History in an outer London secondary school. All that experience taught me one thing. There are some similarities between them of course, but there are more differences and it is those vast differences which make them excellent fodder for fiction.
It took me several books before I felt brave enough to tackle the sibling-based series which had been bubbling around in my odd head for years. Even as I started it, I doubted my own ability to pull it off and worried about it tremendously because if you get family wrong on the page, everybody will hate the book. Make the siblings too similar and you risk dull repetition. Too different and they might as well not be siblings at all, losing all the intricate links and layers which create a successful series.
Getting the balance right is no mean feat.
But inspired by my love of the old but brilliant Hollywood musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I wanted to write about brothers. Four of them rather than seven. All down on their luck. All a bit rough around the edges. All in desperate want of a wife. I even had a surname picked out a good year in advance - Warriner - and because I like to challenge the rule book, I named them Jack, Jamie, Joe and Jake. We writers, you see, are supposed to avoid calling characters similar sounding names in case it confuses our readers and four J's in the same story was clearly a radical move!
They obviously had to have similarities, and for me I went with just three. Firstly, they all looked similar. Dark hair, tall, handsome as sin and with unusually bright blue eyes. Secondly, they all have a deep sense of right and wrong and a need to rescue. And thirdly, and most importantly, despite their many differences, they all had unquestionable loyalty to one another.
After that, they are all very much their own men. The responsible one, the brave one, the clever one and the disappointment.
The first book was responsible Jack’s story and I figured that would be a complicated book to write as I had to set up the series and give the other three brothers their own unique dimensions without allowing them to take over the story. For a person who cannot plot, I even seriously considered creating character bibles—but didn’t. Because it turned out, the sibling dynamic was something I implicitly understood so well I really didn’t need to. Those other three men formed organically of their own accord as that first book progressed and by then end of it, I pretty much knew all of them.
For me, just as my four brothers were uniquely different, so too were their stories. Jack’s story is all about his struggle to rebuild the Warriner family’s dire reputation. He’s a man who has been left with a mess he needs to clear up. He’s dirt poor, proud and used to being in charge. When he inadvertently rescues a kidnapped heiress he could have taken the easy route out of poverty and schmoozed her into marrying him. But he’s much too proud and stubborn to do that, preferring to fight the attraction to the bitter end despite the forced proximity.
Jamie Warriner has issues. Wounded both physically and mentally by war he thinks his life is over. Brooding, surly and monosyllabic, he also has a romantic soul he keeps hidden from the world. Something which leaks out in his beautiful paintings. Most people wouldn’t weave PTSD into a romantic comedy, but then as I’ve already said, I like to challenge the rule book and it worked. I gave him an equally romantic and artistic heroine with issues of her own and made their two horses fall in love.
The third brother, Joe, is the most even tempered. He is also far and away the cleverest man you could ever wish to meet. A brilliant doctor with the most overwhelming need to rescue everything and everyone, needed a real challenge in his story to avoid him coming off as bland. I remember telling my editor my plans for the book over lunch, remember her shocked pause when I said I wanted to write a humorous regency medical romance set during a deadly smallpox epidemic. To her credit, because she knows me well, she simply blinked and said, “We’ve never had a romance set during a smallpox epidemic.” Then she let me get on with it and it worked. Joe, it turned out, was not the least bit bland and for many readers he is their absolute favourite Warriner brother.
For Jake Warriner, the youngest brother, I did something different again. He’s always lived in his elder brothers’ giant shadows and has struggled to find his place in the world as so many younger siblings do. His only obvious talent is charming the ladies, so I decided to use that to drive the story, making my charming ladies’ man a spy who seduces secrets from his conquests for His Majesty’s government—an occupation he manages to pursue for years without his devoted brothers’ knowledge. Except it all comes out in this book when all four of them become embroiled in his mission.
In the end, all my doubts about creating believable yet distinctly unique siblings went unfounded. And to my utter delight, readers loved them. There is something about a sibling series which apparently has universal appeal too. So far, the Wild Warriners have been translated into Italian, German and Lithuanian and the readers in those countries seem to relate to them just as much as those in the English-speaking world. Perhaps because while we might not immediately understand a bit of history or an unfamiliar situation, we all know exactly what it is like to be part of a family.
Virginia Heath's latest series, The King's Elite, is out now barring The Determined Lord Hadleigh, which comes out in July and is available for pre-order. You can find out more about Virginia at VirginiaHeathRomance.Com and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
What are your favorite sibling series? Which siblings do you wish had got their own story? Have you written a series of sibling stories? If so, what tips would you share with your fellow authors? Comment below or tell us on Social Media using #SiblingStories.