Elements of a Dual Timeline Novel: Character Development

Hi, SEers! Welcome to the another Mae Day on Story Empire! In my last post, I gave a brief introduction to dual timeline novels. Now I’d like to tackle the elements involved in each.

Today is all about characters.

I’ll start this post by saying I’m a plantser. That’s part plotter with a lot of pantsing tossed in. When I started writing dual timelines, I learned it’s near impossible to pants a novel one hundred percent. There are simply too many connections to work out between characters. 

Remember­—when writing a dual timeline, you’re working with two sets of characters and two stories. Yes, you can use the same characters in an earlier time frame and a later time frame, but for this post, I’m going to focus on generations apart. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to end up with a tangled web, a path that leads nowhere, or a hopeless mess. If there was ever a reason to plot, a dual timeline leads the pack. If full-fledged plotting isn’t in your wheelhouse, I recommend plansting. You’ll save yourself a lot of hair tugging and pathetic wailing. And yes—I speak from experience.

Regardless of what type of novel I’m writing,­ I always start with characters. You may have a different preference—especially if you think it’s strange to flesh out a character before deciding the era in which he or she lived. 

Victorian couple on park bench, facing each other, woman with bouquet of flowers

As an example, in my current WIP, I developed my protagonist, then waffled on whether to have him live in the late 1700s, 1880s (my go-to time frame), or the early twentieth century. Because I knew his history, I didn’t need to know the time frame. I could take that history and plop it anywhere.

Years ago, I remember listening to the creator of a television show talk about his characters. The setting was Medieval England, but he’d written his characters in such a way he could place them anywhere­—like the Wild West of the American Frontier, or outer space—and the concept would still work. 

Why? Because the show focused on interpersonal relationships and personalities. A determined knight with a need to prove himself could easily be a determined gunslinger with the same need, or a green recruit to new planet, set on emerging a hero. 

You already know the basics that go into good character development. Don’t skimp on them simply because you’re working with two sets of characters. Each needs to be fully fleshed out. You’re going to have two protags—one for each time period—two sets of secondary characters, and—most likely—two villains. If you like developing characters, working with a dual timeline is a dream come true. 

With a good dual timeline story, you should be able to pluck each time frame from the book and have it stand on its own. It should tell a concise tale from start to finish with a beginning, middle, and an end. Each set of characters should have a complete story arc that resolves in a satisfying manner. Even if you decide to leave something open-ended, you need to lead your reader to that point through the journey of your characters.

Genealogical Tree diagram

In closing, I will caution you to make good notes. You’re working with a lot of characters. Once you start weaving in historical aspects, dates will become crucial. They might not make it into your story, but trust me­—you’re going to want to track birth dates, dates of death, and significant occurrences like the founding of a town, construction of a particular property, weddings, major conflicts. And if you’re working with a genealogy, you’ve got to make sure ages and lineage hold up. I’ve created entire family trees just so if I say someone is fourth generation in such-and-such a year, that makes sense based on their birth date and age.

Next up we’re going to look at time frames and setting, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have on today’s post. Drop them in the comments below and let’s chat.

Ready, set, go!

Biio box for author Mae Clair

103 thoughts on “Elements of a Dual Timeline Novel: Character Development

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  4. Excellent post Mae. Like you, I’m a plantser, but learned long ago you can’t be a total pantser without having somewhere to keep track of characters, spellings, dates, etc. I enjoyed your succinct breakdown on writing two timelines. I find myself gravitating to books lately that are written in that style. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love dual timeline novels, Debby—both as a writer AND a reader. I can really become lost in the pages when an author does a good job of juggling the two time frames.

      I completely agree about keeping track of characters, spellings, dates, etc.–even in a single timeframe WIP they become challenging. I have frequently made reference to (what I thought would be a one-time use) street name, only to have to backtrack and flush it out later. And that’s just one example, LOL!

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love learning about this. You write these so well, there must be something I can absorb. I don’t know if it’s the place for me. I’ve dreamed of writing an epistolary style novel for years, but can’t quite work out the logistics of old writings and physical clues. They are similar, but not quite.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is an excellent post of discussion, suggestions, and insights, Mae! I agree that once the characters and plots are developed, they can be plugged into any time period. A lot of planning and taking notes on the dates, physical settings, chronological events, and relationships of the time periods. I enjoy reading dual-timeline books. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Miriam. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.
      And I think it’s pretty amazing how characters have the ability to transcend time-periods and settings. It’s definitely the mark of a well-developed character when you can drop them anywhere!


  7. I’m also a planster. Like others here, I’ve tried to plot but the characters insist on taking me in a direction that offers better opportunities. My first novel was almost a dual timeine becaue it tells the story of the protagonist’s life from a young child to the devastating stroke that puts her in an inadequate care home – which has a different but linked story arc. The second one was a saga spanning sixty years and I got in one unholy mess keeping track of ages and relationships. Excel came into play and I still struggled! I’m completely with you on the importance of personality and character and that if you get that right you can use any setting you want. I really enjoyed this – and I really enjoyed The Haunting of Chatham Hollow. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Trish, I don’t know that I will ever become a plotter. I’ve tried a few times and always give up about a quarter of the way into any book Im working on. I always revert to plansting and, like you, let the characters determine the direction.

      I got a chuckle out of “I got in one unholy mess keeping track of ages and relationships” because I’ve been there/done that, I ended up using a combination of hand-written notes, tables from Word, and Excel spreadsheet. That’s still how I work, and even after having written a number of dual timeline novels, I still have to be very careful not to trip myself up.

      And I’m so glad you enjoyed Chatham Hollow. As a planster, I drove Staci (plotter) nuts while we worked on it, LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I continue to be absorbed in this process. Thanks for sharing it with us, Mae.

    “I will caution you to make good notes.” – I should print this out and tack it to the wall above my desk. I thought I mad good notes, but I’m forever going back and looking things up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • LOL! I’m constantly going back and referencing my notes, Dan. I learned the hard way to make sure I have plenty of them, especially related to dates of significant events.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying this series!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Mae, and it would have been very, very helpful when I decided to write my first book, which I thought would be my ONLY book. One and one. Because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to tell a story set in the 50s or one set in 2011/12, I went with a dual timeline, never realizing how difficult that might be. I just tried to keep each story unique unto itself, and make sure I was getting the dates straight. If I had realized how challenging a dual timeline can be, I probably wouldn’t have tried it. I guess ignorance was bliss in my case, as I never even worried about it. I just did it, and hopefully, it doesn’t present a problem for readers.

    Would I do it again? Possibly, if I had lots of writing time ahead of me. Since I’m winding down a bit, though, I think I’ll go with quicker, easier tales, and probably stick with novella length stories. But the dual timeline is one I enjoy reading, and if I’d started down this path a few years earlier, I’d be tempted to try one again.

    Great series, Mae, and I’m saving all of these posts for future reference, just in case. Who knows? I might decide to give it another go, if I’m feeling energetic and inspired. 😀 ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    • The dual timeline worked really well for me in your first Wale-Robin Ridge book, and it’s what had me coming back for more and meeting the miracle of Rabbit! ❤

      Liked by 3 people

      • That’s lovely to know, Trish, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed WRR and that you came back to meet Rabbit. He has been the most fun to write of anything I’ve done so far, and I do hope to continue his adventures. (Have been putting together my ideas for the first Cole, Cole, & Dupree novella, and am thinking it’s almost time for me to get in touch with the “old gang” to see if anyone wants to read along again.)

        Liked by 2 people

    • Marcia, I remember how intimidated I was when I wrote my first dual timeline. I really had no idea what I was doing and just winged it. I think once you have one under your belt, the next isn’t so difficult. You did an excellent job with your first WRR and I’m sure if you gave it another go it would be easier. That said, I do find writing a single timeline a wee bit easier to handle, hence my latest WIP is a single timeline only. I needed a break, LOL.

      I”d love to see any length work from you–novella, short story, single timeline or straight. Whatever you decide to write, I’m happy to read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, what a nice thing to say, Mae. I actually didn’t even know a dual timeline was supposed to be tricky, so I just did it, without thinking about it. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. It’s only in looking back that I wonder why I chose that route, and how I managed to stumble through it without a total catastrophe occurring. I do think, if I ever write another full-length novel that a dual timeline would be a good fit for, it would likely be easier this time around. Maybe. 😉

        But honestly, I have 20 chapters of a 4th Riverbend book written and doubt I’ll even finish that one, let alone write another. I’m gonna see how I do with the novella I’ve started, and base my decisions on that. Being my age and dealing with a few health issues has definitely slowed me down, but the spirit is still willing, if the flesh doesn’t weaken any farther for a couple more years. We’ll see.

        In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of reading to catch up on, too, and I’m WAY behind on reviews. The older I get, the fewer hours there seem to be in a day. No fair! 😁 But, hey … I’m still here, and I’m gonna give all of these things my best shot!

        Have a great week, my friend! 🤗❤️🤗

        Liked by 1 person

  10. This has been a fantastic series so far, Mae. I am tinkering with an idea for a dual timeline story that has a touch of the paranormal involved. Or maybe something in the sci fi realm. Your series has inspired me. I look forward to more.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. As an outliner, you know I support planning and record keeping. I don’t know how pantsers and even plantsers can remember everything.let along tie everything together. It’s impressive brain power. Excellent post, Mae.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m not sure I’d ever have the courage to tackle a dual-timeline story, but you make some great points here. I can see the benefit of a family tree in character development and can see where almost any novel could benefit from this. Great tips shared, Mae! Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I’m not sure I could do a dual-timeline novel.I have no problem taking one set of characters and putting them in different time situations. I’m very impressed with how you are able to construct entirely different characters and time periods.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Wow. Lots to think about, Mae. It makes total sense that the time period is flexible since the psychological/emotional human stories don’t change much through the centuries. Doubling everything (number of characters, secondary characters, villains) is something I hadn’t thought about, and keeping notes is a great idea! A fun post though I don’t think I’ll be writing any of these anytime soon. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I can see how you could develop a character and plot that could fit in any timeline. And I can see how what you’re doing is creating TWO sets of characters and plots and combining them for a dual timeline. I often like to have two mysteries to solve instead of just one in my cozies and weave them together somehow. I love your dual timelines. They up the ante trying to figure out how they tie together.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You often do have TWO mysteries to solve and tie together in your books, Judi. I can see where that would be similiar to juggling a dual timeline. I’ll be curious to see what awaits in the newset Jazzi, LOL.
      And thanks for the kudos about my stories. I love creating those multiple timelines!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Great post and suggestions, Mae 🙂 You are right it does take more planning than I used to. I have pages of notes for the dual timeline I started, to make sure it all fits. Yes, a character should be rounded no matter which time they are in. I seem to like to visit the 1910 & 20s and 1960s 🙂 xo

    Liked by 3 people

    • All that planning really adds up, doesn’t it? Even without an actual plot, there is so much prep that goes into a dual-timeline novel. I hope you go back to yours one day, Denise. I would love to meet your characters and follow their story arcs in a book!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I am a panster myself. Total plotting never seems to work out for me. For some reason, I always deviate (perhaps that is because the plotting isn’t working). I know Staci is a total plotter, and she is excellent at it. You need to do what works for you.

    Creating character details and their lineage is extremely important as your readers will know if something or some detail isn’t correct, especially in an historical setting, you know the cell phone in the 1800s.

    Creating a character, their flaws, their history/lineage is something I do initially, and I use an actual notebook for that. I highlight, have columns, quarks, fears, habits, in addition to the descriptions and ethnicity needed for them.

    I haven’t done a dual time line, but I have referred to the past and know how important those details need to be.

    Excellent post, Mae.

    Liked by 3 people

    • HI, Michele! I agree with you about Staci and plotting. She’s wonderful at it. I drove her nuts when we were writing The Haunting of Chatham Hollow–especially when we were nearing the end, and I was still winging my timeline, LOL.

      I like how you create your characters. I think that’s the most fun I have when planning a novel, is coming up with the individual characters and what makes each one tick.

      So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for sharing how you work. I’m getting a blast out of seeing so many different approaches!

      Liked by 2 people

  18. In my Diasodz series, I worked with dual timelines in books two and three. Each book followed different characters through the same time periods but on different paths. Their journeys intersected at times, but they never collided until the end. I kept each timeline on a separate sheet of paper to make sure the same amount of activity marked the same amount of passing time to keep the storylines moving around a similar pace. It was a bit challenging at times, but I love how each book came out.

    As for the characters, your advice is spot on. These characters knew and interacted with one another in book one, and I knew they would clash again in book 4, so it was important to make sure their character growth in books two and three stayed true to each of them from book one through book four. Luckily, I am a planner, so I had detailed notes on each character and his/her arc. Great post, Mae!

    Yvette M Calleiro 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • You definitely sound like a planner, Yvette. I like that you kept track of each timeline in books 2 and 3 on a separate sheet of paper. That’s actually brilliant. My notes are usually all crammed together, but it makes great sense to track each timeline and character set in a separate document. I’m going to give that a go with the next dual timeline novel I write.
      Thanks so much for sharing, and I’m glad you enjoyed today’s post!. Happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Great post, Mae. I’ve not created a dual-timeline novel yet, but I will seek your advice when I do. I’m not a Plotter, but I keep notes and track characters. My WIP travels over months, and even with that simple spread of time, I find it critical to keep careful notes of key events/developments/times. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • Aboslutely, Gwen! Even when I’m not working on a dual timeline draft, I find it critical to keep notes of everything that’s happening. Like you, I’m not a plotter, but I need a base framework to help ground me when writing.
      Thanks so much for sharing, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I’m also identifying all foreshadowing in each of the timelines and the triggers for sending the reader into a different timeline. As far as plotting goes, I have a very rough framework in mind when I begin. Once the first draft is completed, I use the fiction version of reverse outlining.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Reverse outlining sounds interesting, Liz. I’ve never tried that (although I can’t get myself to FORWARD outline either, OL).

      Foreshadowing and triggers for sending readers into the opposite timeline are defintely elements to take into consideration. They all fit like pieces of a puzzle and are so fun (if at times daunting) to deal with. It’s sounds like you’re really making progress with your dual timeline WIP!

      Liked by 2 people

  21. I love combining the elements of pantsing and plotting.

    I treat a dual time-line like an outlining project. Keeping track of everything in a spreadsheet works. Thankfully, I discovered the “Aeon Timeline 2” app integrates with my “Scrivener 3” app.

    Aeon’s special features are like a spreadsheet on steroids, allowing writers to input all the details and see the results in a colorful timeline graphic. Scrivener’s “custom metadata” feature helps you write by showing the data in Aeon next to each of the scenes.

    Yes, there’s a learning curve with both apps, but once mastered, writers can manage a dual timeline without fear of losing track of characters, plot twists, and clues that cause readers to quit reading.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi, Grant. I have several writer friends who swear by Scrivener. I done the tutorial and still end up going back to handwritten notes, Excel, and Word, LOL.
      Aeon sounds wonderful. I may have to look that one up.
      Thanks for sharing how you work with dual timelines. They can definitely be tricky to handle!

      Liked by 1 person

  22. This is great advice and a terrific reminder, Mae! As you know, I’m working on edits that are due soon. The wailing and hair tugging this time around only reinforces the need to take the plansting route you suggest. Like you, I always start with the character first. I enjoy journaling from the character’s POV. I’m a big note taker who works better using notebooks rather than an Excel spreadsheet or anything on the computer. I’d love to hear techniques other writers use to organize their notes. Great post!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hi, Jill. I use Evernote to make character notes and create timelines. I’ve recently found a few features in Scrivener that help with keeping weaving multiple timelines and character arcs. (Grant is right about the Scrivener learning curve.)

      Liked by 3 people

    • I hope you’re surviving those edits, Jill. I know that time–especially with deadlines looming–can be brutual!
      I’ve learned the hard way it’s worth it to planst. I don’t think I’ll ver become a plotter despite numerous (failed) attemps, LOL.

      I love notebooks too, and always start with them. Eventually chunks of those notes end up in Excel or Word, when I’m attempting to make sense of them, and better organize my scribblings. That’s particulary true when I have to stitch family trees together!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and hope others will share how they organize, too!

      Liked by 2 people

  23. Like you, I am a plantser. I have to do some planning but I don’t think I could ever be a total plotter. What you’ve said here resonates with me. I’m currently writing the second dual-time line story of a series. Because the modern-day characters (and the setting) are so closely connected, I’ve made more notes – timelines, character lists, important events, and settings (both historical and present-day) than in any project I’ve ever undertaken.

    This is a great post, Mae!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I can completely relate to all those notes, character lists, and timelines, Joan. You’re tracking two novels in one book, and that amounts to a lot of work! Like you, even when I’m doing that, I still can’t plot the way it should be done.
      Plansting is my go to way of writing, even when working with a dual timeline book. Glad to know I’m not alone in that respect!

      Liked by 2 people

  24. Pingback: Elements of a Dual Timeline Novel: Character Development | Legends of Windemere

  25. Hi Mae, I understand what you are saying completely. I think with the basic plotline and actions of the main characters, my stories could also work in any time period. I just chose a time period that I like for my own personal interest and populate the characters into it. Exactly what you’ve said here.

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s it exactly, Robbie. Once you have the characters you just adapt them to the time period. I’m glad to know others can relate to this way of writing. It’s always how I start a new project.

      Liked by 1 person

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