Finding Your Way Forward

All of the preliminary notes in the world cannot prepare an author for the pull that a character will exert on a novel. Even a heavily plotted story needs a core of distinctive characters. The ability of an author to let go of the reins on those characters in large part determines whether they will be compelling to the reader.

As the notes gain life in actual scenes, the personality traits that the writer at first thought would govern a character’s actions are laid bare on the page. Let’s say the original intent was to create a young man who is given to fighting because he has to survive in a rough neighborhood. Environment produces trait: that makes sense. As a consequence the earliest scenes consists of different fights, as well as reactions by those around him to his fighting. 

Then out of nowhere you write a scene where the young man meets someone he likes, and she has no interest in such a thug. After you write it, you like it—you like the chemistry between them and know you can write it well going forward. But she won’t accept him the way you’ve written him. Does the character have to change from fighting to wearing flowers in his hair?

In the first place, it is not a yes/no question. Characters can have opposing thoughts at the same time. So maybe his being proud of hitting changes to his knowing he has to protect himself, but he becomes ashamed of himself when he loses his temper. Maybe he goes on fighting and tries to hide it from her, until she’s fed up and leaves him. Maybe her curtailing his fighting becomes a long-range plot line, until they finally move across the river to a nice town in New Jersey. 

No matter what you decide, the intent of the original character note has changed. Proto boxer has become more interesting. You have to figure out how to reconcile competing imperatives. In the process the character will also become more original, able to stand out in the teeming crowd of angry young men in other books. 

What may also change is the prominence of the new character. Maybe on that initial list of character notes she was buried way down on page 7. She was supposed to be merely a foil for the hero. But when you start writing about her, you realize you are connecting with her, in that strange alchemy that produces magic in writing. It may be time to take another look at your notes and think through how she will affect the assignments for more featured characters. 

Exercise: Notes are not graven in stone. They are supposed to be guidelines. It is a useful habit to set up a weekly time when you review your notes. Read them over and see what still pertains and what can be jettisoned. In the process, write new notes that better fit how the story is evolving. 

“The only thing I fear more than change is no change. The business of being static makes me nuts.” —Twyla Tharp

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.