Saturday, 28 February 2015

When Draft One is Only The Job Interview for your Characters

Now that I've passed the 60% mark for Draft Two of Redemption, I'm starting to realise how completely different the story is from Draft One - whilst at the same time essentially the same. Confused? I don't blame you. I shall explain...

The original key plot points are still there, unchanged in their purpose or meaning within the story as a whole. The settings and locales are still the same. And I haven't added or removed any characters or changed their names, ages or occupations. And yet, when I compare my first draft rantings to my second, they read so differently in style and context as to almost seem as if both were written by completely different writers. So far I like the second writer's version much more, I have to say (just as well, or may have to either give up writing or find a way to travel backwards through time to do the stages in the opposite order.) But what's changed, exactly? What is it about my revised version that was missing from that first draft? I've felt a need to figure this out from the moment I noticed it, if only so that I can apply the lessons learned to future novels. And this week, on completing a very particular chapter, it finally dawned on me.

It's the characters. I've finally got to know them as people, rather than just walking, talking plot devices.

If you've been writing stories of any kind for any amount of time, you will have doubtless heard the advice about creating detailed profiles for your characters. The advocates of this approach proclaim you must know everything about every important character in your story; not just the basics like their name, age and physical attributes, but even the most minute stuff. Like where they went to school, their shoe size, their most embarrassing memory, whether they'd be Team Jennifer or Team Angelina...

I did that thing. Well, most of it anyway. If I'm honest, I didn't bother with many of the trivialities. My protagonist has lived a pretty hellish life even before she got to her current place in the story, so is it really going to help me to know what her favourite tv programme would be - if she ever got the chance to even see a working tv, never mind watch it?

The thing is though, I did all of that malarkey after I'd worked out the basic plot, filling in the information as I came to it while writing the first draft. There's a popular school of thought that says you shouldn't even begin to write the words 'Chapter One' until you have these complete biographies of every significant character in the story, all written up like handy mini-Bibles for you to refer to with each twist and turn of your plot. I'm sure that works like a charm for some writers, but it doesn't really match the way I dream up stories. I usually start with a 'What if..?' and chase the premise to its ultimate conclusion via a series of even more 'what if..?'s piled on top. Part of that process involves asking questions like "What kind of person could find themselves in that situation in the first place?" "What sort of things would they do to get out of that situation?" and "How could their solutions to those problems make the resulting situation even worse?" (Bwah ha haaaaa..!)

Those are things you can't really figure out until you've actually put your little LEGO-men onto your Head-Stage and watched them improv their little plastic socks off. So, if you ultimately discover you need a Benedict Cumberbatch to drive your plot forward, you're going to be pretty gutted if you've only got a pre-made Bruce Willis available in your character-bank.

So, while I had a basic idea of what sort of characters I might need to populate Redemption as I began to write it, I didn't really get to know them as individuals until I'd spent some time with them, watching them on my Head-Stage and making notes about their performances. Hence the job interview analogy in the title of this post (see, it wasn't just a random thing..!)

The benefits of this approach are that you have a much better chance of putting the right person into the right job, and that, should there be some areas where they're not quite compatible with certain duties, you can make alternative plans rather than writing yourself into a black hole (i.e. delegate tasks to another, more suitable candidate, or allow them their awkward little foibles but then hit them from another angle with something more 'suited' to their personality... *strokes imaginary white cat and cackles*)

The downside, of course, is that your characters will be... well, little more than LEGO people for most of your first draft, as you watch them get to grips with your script and attempt to deliver the performance of their career. By the time I was ready to do my first read-through of Draft One, I'd spent enough time with them to know what they were really like, and was able to get completely frustrated when they weren't performing their roles to their full potential thanks to the lousy script some knuckle-headed chump had given them. ("Why does my protagonist cry so bloody much - at just about everything? Whoa, Mr Doctor-Character, do you not think that's waaaay inappropriate behaviour? And as for you, Mr Supporting Character - no sweetheart, you are not a stand-up comedian...") Take some familiar-ish stereotypes and give them a few double-espressos with Red Bull chasers, and that was pretty much the Draft One population of Redemption.

For the second draft I had all the pieces of the plot already in place, which meant I could let them marinate while I focused more deeply on the characters playing them out - and the biggest shift was in viewpoint and motivation. In the first draft my approach had been pretty rudimentary; the protagonist would do or say something and the other character would do or say something in response that fitted in with both the plot and what I'd discovered about their personality so far. This character was tactless and socially inept? Boom, he'd do/say something tactless and socially inept then. Job done!

But by the time I got to starting the second draft, I'd learned something about characters - all characters, not just the ones in my novel. That, no matter who they are as far as the structure of the story works, in their eyes they are the protagonist - the only life they're living is theirs, and they're the star of that, baby! So now, for every interaction between my protagonist and other characters, I had to consider the feelings of two or more people, not just one. To think beyond "What is this typically socially awkward and blunt character going to say and do in this particular situation with my protagonist?" and instead think "how is that character likely to feel about this situation? Would he misinterpret the words/actions of my protagonist? And if he did, would he still respond the same way - or would he be defensive or fearful instead?" Sometimes this took my plot in new directions that I hadn't even anticipated - but even when that happened, the new twists still worked within the plot structure I had. If anything, they even explained parts that previously didn't have as much depth as I wanted.

As a result, some characters who started out as mere extras in my story have found themselves with bigger, more defined roles in this second draft. One character in particular has evolved in ways I could never have foreseen. In my first draft he was little more than occasional light relief, a bit of comedy filler to make the major characters look good. But once I started to see the way his mind worked and the reasons he became the person he'd become, I realised how much potential influence he could have on many existing plot points. He went from being a walk-on stooge to an unlikely but helpful ally for the protagonist and her friends, and became a much more interesting character as a result.

I still have a way to go, of course. Even once draft two is finished, there'll be further edits and polishes before I dip my toes into the cold cold waters of beta-reading... and then probably further editing and polishing. But it's an exciting journey, getting under the skin of my characters and letting them riff with the existing script to see what develops.

So, all you fellow writers out there... do you have a character from one of your stories who surprised you with their capabilities once you got to know them? One you grew to love (or hate) once you saw their true potential? Feel free to share them in the comments - I'd love to meet them.

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