(Pensacola, Florida; June 2, 2022,) – Characters must change with the times, or else they and their relationships become stagnant structures contemptuously consigned to the compost pile of failed creative ideas.
However, as related to my recent column on Keeping Characters Consistent (https://sparks1524.com/2022/04/27/the-writers-craft-keeping-characters-consistent/), the challenge of ensuring your characters stay in character, even as they react to, and change along with ,the world they inhabit, faces the writer every day.
I’m currently rewriting the draft of my fourth novel, The Accidental Detective adventure Lionfish. I wrote the first draft in 2018, but my skills and maturity as a novelist and writer have grown considerably (thanks largely to the coaching of my deadly nemesis…er, editor—Jerry Foltz). The story is the same, but the execution of this story is completely different (and, I believe, better) than my first go-round.
The first six books of the Accidental Detective series will constitute one large story arc, but this hexalogy is built on two trilogies, the first of which concluded with And So It Begins. This first trilogy was anchored in the reality of Isaac Shepherd’s imminent retirement from the Navy and transition into civilian life. His relationship with NCIS Special Agent Abraham Gray was still defined by him being an amateur detective, balancing that part of his life with his assigned duties as a Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist. Even as Shepherd grew more independent and self-confident, he was still clearly the ‘junior’ partner to Gray while he was in uniform. Their personal relationship was also heavily defined by Gray acting as the ‘older brother’ and mentor to the volatile younger man.
That whole relationship is turned upside down starting in Lionfish, the opening salvo of the second trilogy making up the hexalogy of the Accidental Detective’s first six books. Without giving away spoilers, Lionfish sees Shepherd and Gray partner again, only this time Shepherd’s a free agent. He’s retired and no longer constrained by the legal, cultural, and professional limitations he was under when on active duty.
This presents a significant challenge to me as an author. The entire relational foundation for these two that I’ve been working with since early 2017 has changed, and changed abruptly. That’s five years of these characters relating to each other from within one frame of reference upended in one fell swoop. I hinted at this eventuality numerous times in book 1, Proud Lion, and Abraham Gray directly addresses this oncoming train in a conversation with his wife in book 2, The Norfolk Murders. The Great Change was looming.
Well, now, with book 4, Lionfish, the Great Change has arrived.
The challenge is to keep my characters consistently in character while they adjust to this new chapter in their personal and professional relationship. We all go through these moments in real life. Military veterans are an ‘archetype’ of this experience because our relationships were graphically constrained by military law and custom while we were on active duty. Upon leaving the service, those high-relief cultural boundaries became irrelevant almost immediately, requiring us to renegotiate and redefine those relationships.
However, how do we navigate this as writers? I’ve experienced this process in my real life numerous times, but in my real life I’m only worried about me and my actions/reactions. I can’t dictate how my friends will or won’t change with the times, so I’m only ‘writing’ my own life story. In the world of fiction, I’ve got the challenge of relating how multiple different characters navigate these changes. Isaac Shepherd is the closest character to me, so it’s easiest for me to adequately sketch out his story. However, Abraham Gray is a different man. How he reacts is going to be very different, and I have to ‘listen’ to him very carefully to make sure I relate his character growth accurately and consistently.
Like all literary endeavours, this can be, at first, a trial-and-error situation until we really get comfortable understanding the new ‘fingerprints’ of our characters in these moments. Don’t be afraid of such moments. This is what the editing process is for, and that process can start while you’re still drafting the novel. Whether I’m on a roll or not, if a scene I write feels ‘off,’ I’ll put down my pen for a spell and let the story simmer in the back of my head. I might take a break for five or ten minutes, or I might take an entire day or two orr in order to let ideas percolate through my brain. So far, every time a scene has felt off, a bit of reflection revealed I’d written Gray’s behavior and thoughts incorrectly. I had him reacting more like Shepherd than himself.
I didn’t slash-and-burn those scenes wholesale. Now, while I’m not afraid to ax entire chapters (been there, done that!) if needed, this isn’t that type of mass extinction event. This is more a surgical reconstruction of Abraham Gray’s character in that scene. I have gone back, identified the points where Gray didn’t behave like Gray, and rewritten the prose to reflect his true actions and feelings. This does often necessitate altering the rest of the scene a bit to ensure consistency, but the story is still going forward while I get to know how to write these characters in this new world.
The way we relate to our characters is very similar to how we relate to our real-life acquaintances: it’s bordered, bounded, and defined by certain cultural guardrails that exist in those ‘eras’ of the story. If you’re writing a series, those ‘eras’ will change, just like they do in real life. It can seem hard to find your characters’ voices again, but this is not a failure on your part as a writer. It’s simply you, as a writer, learning to relate to your characters in a new cultural landscape.
If your story feels right, but a particular character in a scene feels ‘off’ somehow, then I’d recommend you take a short break. Think about that scene. Let it percolate through your imagination for a spell so you can identify where the disconnect is. Once you have it, go back and adjust that character’s behavior and feelings to reflect their ‘true’ voice. Again, don’t be afraid of this reality. Well-written characters are almost as much living, breathing people as the real-life people we know. This means we writers have to allow our relationships with the characters to evolve, and it can sometimes take a bit of time to get used to the new reality.
Writers face the new horizons of new eras along with the characters, only writers have the added challenge of ensuring those characters remain in character while going through these changes. Trust your instincts and your gut. If you feel like a character is ‘off,’ listen to that and allow yourself the time to ponder. More often than now, I’ll bet you find the character’s voice coming back to you, and each time you listen your bond with that character will be forged tighter and stronger, just like how our real-life friendships are forged tighter and stronger as we and our friends go through our lives together.
-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/LPd5OGDHInM
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