The (Really) Long and Winding Road: Character Evolution

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character evolution. Now, I don’t mean the kind that you see within a story, I’ve written about that before and it’s been covered on lots of other blogs a lot better than mine. I’m thinking more of the evolution of a character as you write a story, from the initial character sketch right down to the final draft. I’ve seen quite the interesting evolution as I’ve gone through so many iterations of Room 3, and I wanted to examine that here.

Given that characters are the real lifeblood of a story, evolving characters mean an evolving story, which has presented some of the problems I’ve had in reaching a satisfactory state with Room 3. I think the characters are finally there, but it’s instructive to look back at where the whole thing started and see how my own characters have evolved and the thought process behind those changes. Warning: this is going to get quite long, but I think it’s interesting all the same.

You know, some characters are born whole, just the way they end up when the readers get the novel. It’s powerful and great when that happens, but it happens so rarely for me, even when the final version of the character has such a strong personality, that I wonder if the evolving character path is the more common path.

In Room 3 (then known as Entanglements), we started with the character now known as Carla sharing the stage with two guys who have been entirely excised from the plot and saved for a future story. The woman who would become the protagonist, Kelli, was then known as Jenny and was little more than a supporting character. She was a southern belle type who occupied Room 2 and conversed with Carla via the air ducts. I never meant her to occupy much room in the story, but her personality became so interesting that I kept her on for quite some time during that draft. Let’s look at a little bit of Jenny’s introduction:

For a second, I swear I saw the grate coming off. I yelped and almost went flat on my ass, catching myself at the last second, my wrists shouting.

The hiss came again, this time a hushing sound, followed by a southern-fried, honeyed female voice.

“Y’all there?”

“I…I’m here.” I leaned toward the grate like I was worshipping the thing. “Who are you?”

She cleared her throat. “Well duh, I’m your neighbor.”

“Right. I mean, what’s your name?”

“Jenny. What’s your name, sugar?”

Sugar. Good lord. “I’m Carla. How long you been in there?”

“A good long while, let me tell you that. I apologize for saying this, but I’m kind of glad you’re here.”

“Well that makes one of us.”

She laughed. “I know right? I’m sorry. I’ve just been lonely since that room’s been empty.”

“Keeping you locked up too, huh?”

“Of course. That’s what they do here.”

“We’re probably in the same boat, huh?”

“Yep.” I heard a thump, like she was sitting against the wall. “I heard ‘em bring you in the other night, and I thought Lord God here we’ve got another one.”

 

There are a few hints of what would become Kelli, but not too many. The biggest problem with this draft was that narrating from Carla’s point of view was just plain boring – she was meant to be normal, but she turned out to be a little too normal. So I thought, why not put them in the same room to make things a little more interesting, and turn Jenny into the narrator? Keep her Southern, but make her African American. Thus, Kelli was born. Here is what she sounded like in a sample that I sent to my cover artist at the end of December:

Next thing I knew, sunlight knocked on my eyelids, coming in through the dirt-streaked windows. I looked up and saw the honored guest stirring in her bed.
“Good morning,” I said.
She rolled over, and her eyes popped open, finding me real quick. “Who are you?” I reckon I had a good idea of the thoughts running through her head, so I didn’t go off when she called me a name that I will not repeat here, again demanding my identity.

I sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. “I said good morning. First of all, I’ll thank you not
to call me that ever again if we’re going to be in such close quarters, and second, the name’s Kelli.
You happen to remember what happened last night?”
“No! I…” she closed her eyes.
“Mmm. Looks like you do remember after all. Remember something, anyway.”
“Who are you?” she said. She had a thick Boston accent, the kind I’d only ever heard in movies. When she asked her question, it sounded like who ah yew.
“I told you. But I guess that’s not quite what you mean. I reckon I’m your new roommate, but you don’t have to be all hostile about it, either. I’m not the one that dragged you in here, and I didn’t choose to be here, neither.”
“Nah, ‘course you didn’t.” Something made her voice smoky. Probably the drugs. “Where are we?”

 

There are still some echoes of Jenny present in the character here, though Kelli was still a ways from where I wanted her to be. Ryan had a few comments on what he saw here, and that shaped the evolution of the character a little more. I also made some discoveries during the story about just who Kelli was in the grand scheme of things. Here’s the same scene from the initial draft, dated January 23rd:

Next thing I knew, sunlight knocked on my eyelids, coming in through the dirt-streaked windows. I looked up and saw the honored guest stirring in her bed.

“Good morning,” I said.

She rolled over, and her eyes popped open, finding me real quick. “You!”

“You do know me,” I said.

She thought about it, and then shook her head. “Wait, I don’t…have we met?”

“We met last night. When they brought you in.”

She touched her head and winced. “Right. Maybe that’s it. Who are you?”

I sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. “The name’s Kelli. You remember what happened last night?”

“No! I…” she closed her eyes.

“Mmm. Looks like you do remember after all. Remember something, anyway.”

“Who are you?” she said. She had a thick Boston accent, the kind I’d only ever heard in movies. When she asked her question, it sounded like who ah yew.

“I told you. But I guess that’s not quite what you mean. I reckon I’m your new roommate, but you don’t have to be all hostile about it, either. I’m not the one that dragged you in here, and I didn’t choose to be here, neither.”

“Nah, ‘course you didn’t.” Something made her voice smoky. Probably the drugs. “Where are we?”

By the time I was ready to send the story out to beta readers, Kelli’s edges had softened just a little bit, but I think she was still kind of aggressive and unlikable. At least she was interesting, though. I was also in the process of retooling how she saw the world and interacted with it. There are subtle differences in this version, but they change the tone of the character just enough to present another step in her evolution:

Next thing I knew, sunlight knocked on my eyelids, coming in through the dirt-streaked windows, over by the sink. My eyes creaked open just in time to see the honored guest stirring in her bed.

“Good morning,” I said.

Her eyes popped open, finding me real quick. “You!”

“So you do know me after all. Too bad I don’t know you,” I said.

She shook her head. “Wait, I don’t…have we met?” She had a thick Boston accent, the kind I thought I’d only ever heard in movies.

“We met last night. When they brought you in.”

She touched her head and winced. “Right. Maybe that’s it. Who are you?”

I got up and sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. “The name’s Kelli, but you already told me that last night.”

“I did?”

I cocked my head. “You mean to tell me you don’t remember anything that happened last night?”

“No. I…” she closed her eyes.

“Mmm. Looks like you do remember after all. Remember something, anyway.”

“Who are you?” she said. When she asked her question, it sounded like who ah yew.

“I told you. But I guess that’s not quite what you mean. I reckon I’m your new roommate, but you don’t have to be all hostile about it, either. I’m not the one that dragged you in here, and I didn’t choose to be here, neither.”

“Nah, ‘course you didn’t. Where are we?”

The beta comments that came back were numerous. Kelli was still not a very likable, or vulnerable character, which surprised readers given her situation (kidnapped by strange people and forced into taking lots of drugs). Not many people picked up on her being from the South, which seemed strange to me, or being African American, which seemed a little less obvious, I have to admit – in my desire to avoid stereotyping, I had made her a little too neutral. Baffled and frustrated, I went back to the drawing board with the character and reinvented her as a fellow New Englander to Carla, with a little more of a sense of humor and a whole lot more vulnerability, though I explained her toughness a little more through storytelling. The character that came out the other end, after a few iterations of drafting, was a lot different. Here’s what she sounds like in what will be the final draft:

Next thing I knew, dirty sunlight streamed in through the streaked Plexiglas windows. I put one hand over my eyes and groaned. I rolled away from the sun and toward the new girl, managing to pry my eyes open just in time to see her stirring in her own bed.

“Good morning,” I said, my voice full of gravel.

Her eyes popped open, finding me quickly. “You.”

I propped myself up on one elbow. “So you do know me. Too bad I don’t know you.”

She shook her head. “I do? No, I…have we met?”

I suddenly had some doubts. Had we met, maybe in the bar? She had a South Boston accent, something I heard all the damned time, and something about her voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I racked my brain for a moment, but the damned thing refused to cooperate.

“Well, we met last night. When they brought you in,” I said at last.

“Right. Maybe that’s it. Who are you?”

I got up and sat on the edge of the bed, facing her. “The name’s Kelli, but you already know that.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah. You said it last night.”

She blinked. “I did?”

I cocked my head. “You don’t remember anything about last night?”

“No. I…” she closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Well…”

“Mmm. Looks like you remember after all. Remember something, anyway.”

“Just impressions. Who are you, really?” she said. When she asked that, it sounded like who ah yew.

“Good question. Not completely sure I know myself. But I do know I’m your new roommate.”

Her head swiveled, and I saw the room anew through her eyes: the cracked wood paneling, the big dark closet that seemed to open on eternity. “What? Where are we?”

So the character completed her arc, and the tone of the story changed quite a bit. There are also some added layers of polish in there, as should be expected, but I actually like Kelli as she is today. I feel that the book is becoming something I’m proud to release rather than something that I’d push out the door hoping for the best. It’s a complex story and it just needed the time to realize its potential.

Okay, enough for today. I’d like to look some at how the plot has evolved in the near future, but that’s a story for another day.

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7 Comments

  1. I find your study really interesting.
    I have never been able to break my stuff down into a study–whether it be ADD in my way or simply lack of patience, I can see from just the snippet that you analyzed here it is worth it.
    It also made me aware that we truly are creating people–we are literary Dr. Frankensteins.
    Great post. Thanks

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Pretty much, and the interesting thing is that all these iterations have felt “real” to me in one way or another. I’m endlessly fascinated by how these things evolve and would love to see how some of my favorite characters came to be. I’m sure Stephen King, for example, has some really interesting stories to tell about the evolution of the Randall Flagg character.

  2. I’ve always been a huge character person. Every book I’ve read, or TV or movie I’ve watched made me analyze the characters, wondering about their psychological makeup. Constructing characters is hard; the initial idea for the character is relatively easy, compared to chiseling away and developing them. It’s a lot of fun, though.

    I really appreciated your case study of Kelli’s evolution. I really loved the Southern Kelli. You definitely lost all of that inflection and personality as Kelli evolved, but I agree that it’s hard to do Southern or black without being stereotypical and cliche. Good luck with Room 3. Just from these excerpts, it sounds really interesting.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Same here. Is it wrong that I sometimes find myself doing that with people that I know, too? I don’t share my thoughts, but I often find myself dissecting what makes people tick so I can “reverse engineer” some of that into characters.

      Thanks! I really liked Southern Kelli, too, and I may end up using a variation of that character in a future book. I think in this case she just wasn’t right for this particular story. I like the new Kelli a lot, too; this sample didn’t show her wit or sense of humor, which was missing in the old version.

      Hopefully I get the book out this year 🙂

  3. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a character pop out onto a page, fully formed. They always do something or change in some way I could never have predicted. Your selection of snips shows that happening here pretty clearly.

    And makes me want to read Room 3!

  4. Agreed that it is difficult not to be too stereotypical. I mean, having lived in the South, there are reasons for those stereotypes (and real people that fit them perfectly), but if we’re not careful, they come off as flat when we try to put them on the page.

    I had similar difficulties with The Imaginings, especially considering it started out as a short story I wrote in college and then turned into a book seven years later. David largely represented me, and I had ended his story in college. Then to bring him back to life seven years later when he supposedly hadn’t aged (and I had) was very interesting. I also started out Jeannie much younger (like 8 years old, I think) then moved her ahead about 9 years to be 17. That was a challenge.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  5. Pingback: Deleted: Room 3 Original Introduction | Shaggin the Muse

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