Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Reimagining a Character

"A story is only as strong as its villain."

That quote (or one like it, I'm paraphrasing) has caused me some discomfort for the past few months of writing Willa. I suspected there was something lacking in this regard when it came to my antagonist, and when I got around to noticing recently that he had dropped out of the story for chapters at a time, I knew it. My villain, my antagonist, the character I meant to throw a wrench (and the whole toolbox) into my protagonist's plans, had faded mid-book to a mildly threatening shadow. A dog with some bark, but no real bite.

For a couple of weeks I stewed over this problem, prayed about it, mentioned it in emails to my crit partner, Laura. Then late last week it hit me like a fat raindrop on the forehead. I'd never made the very needful leap inside the man's mind and stayed there long enough, unpleasant a place as it is, to study him until I knew what he's willing to do, what lengths he's willing to go to, to stop my protagonist from reaching her goal. And, just as important, to find it in me to sympathize with why he is how he is. 

Now I know this guy has depths and layers I'd only glimpsed before (thank you, Lord, it was worth the wait). I'm giddy with the "rightness" of it, and ready to take a deep breath and head back to the early chapters of the story. I have some reworking of scenes to do, some rewriting, probably a few new scenes to drop into place. I wouldn't halt the forward momentum of first draft writing for just any little revision, but this is a big one. This is going to affect the outcome of the rest of the book in ways I can't predict yet.

So (takes that deep breath) now that the long weekend is behind us (and I hope yours was a good one!) it's time to make my antagonist as complex on the page as he now is in my mind, and as any character worth writing deserves to be.

Have you ever been nearly half done with a novel and realized you were shortchanging an important character? Not looking deep enough? Not allowing them to fully live on the page? Were you able to flesh them out? And if so, did it change the course of the story at all? I suppose that's the question I'm most eager (and a bit nervous) to find out. 

A housekeeping note: You may have noticed a delay on comments appearing here on Past Perfect. I've had to switch to comment moderation due to the attentions of a persistent spammer. This is my way of keeping the place clean for everyone else. Sorry to have to do it, as I like the instant gratification of seeing my comments on other blogs appear right when I post them and would rather provide that to everyone who visits here. Until or if I decide to take more drastic measures against this spammer, comment moderation seems the best solution.


  1. Have you ever been nearly half done with a novel and realized you were shortchanging an important character?

    Yes! I've had to add more about them in the editing process and it made my story a lot stronger.


  2. Clarissa,

    I'm glad the solution presented itself now, halfway through the plot. I have the suspicion the changes I'm making could send the story off in unexpected directions. Which is not necessarily a bad thing!

  3. Lori, how exciting that you got a clear picture of your antagonist and will be able to do his character justice on the page.

    I had to revise the hero and heroine in my current story. My agent pointed out some weaknesses in their characters I'd been blind too. My heroine is now far stronger than before, and her hero is more flawed. It took me awhile to get to know the new incarnations of these two, but I'm far happier with them the way they are now. Plus, the story is much better as a result.

  4. Change works well, especially in a novel as good as yours, Lori, because it makes it even better. Believe me, I've had to ditch 1/3 of a story and rewrite the entire novel in a 2 month time span. You will be amazed at how interesting it can be, especially when it takes you in another direction:)

  5. Laura,

    I was thinking of you when I wrote those questions. I'm amazed you did it in two months time. Can't wait to meet Morrow Little! I wonder if any copies really will be released this soon? I haven't heard anything from CBD yet.

  6. Keli, It was an issue I prayed over for weeks (while brainstorming some not too great ideas) before the right answer finally dropped into my brain like a lovely gift, just when I wasn't looking. Then Laura confirmed it when I shared it with her. Now the real work is ahead of me. Your experience gives me hope that all the work will be worth it. Yay, for strong heroines. And flawed heroes, too.

    I'm getting that questionnaire polished up for you, btw. :)

  7. I have had to spin off an earlier WIP and the antagonist became so fascinating to me that I spent most of the past week with him. So, maybe it can go too far, too!! I have found, in the middle of the original WIP that the antagonist vanished from the pages, but now I can postpone dealing with that bad guy until this one is done. Thanks for the post!

  8. I liked your thoughts on shortchanging a character. I've had some problems with my current WIP - first one being my hero wasn't well developed enough, but I think I have that worked out now. I'm still working on my antagonist issues. I don't have a true villain and am trying to figure out how much external opposition (through an opposing character)is necessary for this story since there are so many other obstacles to them reaching their goals. I don't really need a strong villain, and am wondering if this is required. With this particular story I'm a little murky on this issue, although with most of my other WIPs I have strong antagonists.

    Any thoughts?

  9. Lori, I'm looking forward to having you as my guest. I'm eager to learn more about your writing process.

  10. Carla, Maybe dispensing with the word "villain" would be a good idea. :) As I understand it, an antagonist can be anything (man, beast, ideology, force of nature, circumstance) that stands in the way of a hero's goal. I think it's good if a human character can embody this obstacle to some degree, or even is the obstacle, because their goals are such that they can't reach them if the protagonist reaches hers, or vice versa.

    In Kindred, the novel my agent is shopping around now, there is no one main antagonist, but a group of people the protagonists are inextricably linked to whose goals are in direct opposition to my protagonists' goals. Some to a greater degree than others. But the main antagonist, as I see it, is the institution of slavery.

    In Willa, my WIP, it worked out that there is one particular character who will actively seek to thwart my protagonists (yet even without him there are other obstacles to overcome, but without him the story would be far less interesting and the tension would be mostly internal), but that hasn't been the norm for me by any means. Circumstances and social pressures make good antagonists too. But if a character can embody some of that, I think it would be a strength. In Kindred several characters embody different facets of the wounding, corrupting force that slavery exerted over masters and their families. So they became my antagonists, but I wouldn't call any of them a villain.

    Hope some of my thoughts helped and didn't just muddy the waters further. :)

  11. Carrie,

    Thanks for your comment! I so understand about characters disappearing. I like to work with a large cast of characters, and often it's not until the whole draft is complete and I take a look at the big picture... then I can make sure everyone has the right amount of stage time. In my experience it often means pruning back some of the stage-hogs. I tend to lavish the spotlight on certain characters or situations a little too much. Or a lot. :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Thank for your insights, Lori. Very helpful. I really enjoy hearing your thoughts on writing. Blessings!!