What I Learned About Writing Characters

So I successfully used the “Because Ellen assumes X, Ellen wants Y, so she tries Z, but A happens to prevent her from getting it, so Ellen assumes X1” plot breakdown to revise the first third or so of NEXT BOOK (also called A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS).

Then things got messy, because as soon as I got Ellen through that portal (spoiler alert, it’s a portal fantasy, of course she goes through the portal) I introduced a bunch of subplots.

So any given section of the story isn’t just “Because Ellen assumes X,” it’s “Because Ellen assumes X about her relationship with Robin” and “Because Ellen assumes X about her relationship with Grace” and “Because Ellen assumes X about the way the portal world works.” She’s doing three or four different things at once, and they don’t chunk up neatly into chapters.

The big question is “what Ellen will do with the opportunity the portal has provided her.” When you’re a 30-something adult with a bunch of responsibilities and ANOTHER WORLD OPENS UP, how do you deal? Do you change everything? Do you resist change? Do you make that decision on your own, or do you take family and friends and money and community into account?

But to answer that big question, Ellen also has to face some assumptions about her interpersonal relationships, which is where all of the subplots come in.

I haven’t yet figured out how to write overlapping “Because Ellen assumes X” statements; I might just have to write them all next to each other and note at which point in the text each of them changes or resolves. (Previously, I had been beginning each major chunk of text with its related “Because Ellen assumes” statement, to make sure I had all the necessary plot elements in the revision.)

This also means—and I just realized this today, during my morning rewrite session—that I need to get really clear on the story of each of Ellen’s interpersonal relationships. Where these two characters are at the beginning of the story, what happens to make them change, and where they are at the end.

I’d already known the story of the two big relationship changes (Ellen:Robin and Ellen:Grace), but I realized this morning that if I don’t also include relationship stories for Ellen:Mya and Ellen:Dad and Ellen:Lovelace and so on, then half of the relationships in my book are NPC relationships*, which means half of the characters in my book aren’t really characters. They’re just obstacles, or helpers, or plot devices.

And I don’t want that. This story only has a handful of characters in it to begin with, and if it’s going to work the way I want it to, Ellen has to change her relationship with everybody.

Which means that I have to do a bunch more work—or I get to do a bunch more work, because I’m excited about it, but also I’m like “this book needs SO MUCH WORK and what if it never gets finished in time for anyone to like it?”

On the other hand, I’d rather have it be a good book than a fast one. ❤️

*NPC stands for non-playable character, which is a video game thing. The character who is only there to hand you a sword or give you some information. Those kinds of characters are useful in some stories, but not in this one. (I mean, there are a few “townspeople,” for lack of a better term, that take Ellen’s ticket when she tours the big historical mystery door house and so on. But that’s not the function I want this story’s actual characters to serve.)

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