Standing Pillars

The original conception of a character may not stand the test of repeated writing sessions. Early notes tend to reflect broad ideas, not the least because you are thinking at that point of overarching themes. A sketch propels you forward into the first scenes. Be . . . like that. A novel, however, takes a different form when your hazy thoughts in the gloaming are transferred onto paper. You may find that perhaps a conception requires a more character-driven approach that you seem capable of writing. You’re ending up with a string of dialogue scenes that really aren’t accomplishing much of anything.

So you switch gears. Maybe you add more plot elements to make up for your lack of penetration into the character. Let’s say you have chosen a teenager with a limp, Cal, because you want to write in a meaningful way about the challenges of being handicapped. You made him into a brawler, because he is teased so often about his limp—because it’s so obvious. Yet when you read over the first 30 pages, you find yourself bored. Amid a sea of what reads like complaints, the pugilism is the only interesting thing you’ve written about the guy. You decide that Cal, along with another character that you never get around to including, Yvonne, will solve a mystery. The handicap will be dealt with along the way to finding a murderer.

What happens to the fists? You don’t really need them anymore. You were only trying to stir up story tension with them. So do your present fight scenes and projected ones all get tossed along with the whining? Not necessarily. Any plot element that produces friction can be repurposed. After all, one could argue that Sam Spade is better at being a tough guy than he is at solving mysteries.

So maybe you use an early scene of taunting for a new purpose: to show Cal will resort to fighting to solve a problem. That will be helpful if you have a scene where Cal and Yvonne venture into the equivalent of a back alley and some thugs come out the back door. Even if Cal is overmatched, he can throw enough punches so they can get the heck out of there. 

The character purpose remains. Cal becomes mad when he is taunted, and his lashing out still feels like a natural trait of a handicapped person. Yet you have turned what was a defining characteristic into merely one of the tools you use to set him apart. The fact that you have downgraded it may also help to make it feel more realistic.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”                     —Muhammad Ali

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.