“Nothing changes more constantly than the past; for the past that influences our lives does not consist of what happened, but of what men believe happened.”– P.L. Berger
In the rewrite we’re like detectives, trying to get to the essential truth of this fictive world we’ve created. Through this process, it’s important to understand that our characters are often far more malleable than we may think. The problem only arises when we make our idea of our characters more important than the nature of what we’re attempting to express. This is where the writer can get lost. Our original impulse is our guiding light. It contains the dilemma, the tension that fuels our story to its conclusion. It’s from this place that we rewrite scenes, clarify information, and get down to the dirty work of writing the best novel we can.
All of our revisions are in service to the story as a whole. This must take precedence. When one goes to a good doctor complaining of knee pain, the doctor will examine the hips. He’s looking for the source of the problem, as opposed to the apparent problem. We can often become distracted by the apparent problem, and fail to see the source.
For example: Let’s say that we’re writing a story about some yuppie lost on a hike. He’s cold and thirsty, night is falling, and he fears that he won’t make it to morning. As the author, we may know that he’s going to survive, but we want our reader to be unsure. So, let’s say that we come to a point in the story where we’ve run out of ideas, and our protagonist is just sitting around, waiting for daybreak. We’re stuck. We don’t know how to introduce a complication that will heighten the tension. This is where we must be open to altering or widening our idea of our character and the story.
Perhaps in our first draft, we imagined him as a hiking virgin, bereft of wilderness skills. We must remember that as the author we can always introduce elements in the rewrite that help to make our story more dynamic. Perhaps we imagine that he builds an animal trap, but wonder where he learned this skill. Is it possible that he’s not a tax lawyer, but rather, an architect with a special skill for building things? Does altering his occupation change the story in any important way? If not, we’ve now created a character that is more three-dimensional. He’s not just a construction to support our idea of a yuppie. And if we set up his technical skills early rather than springing it on our reader, there is a synchronicity of character and plot.
Perhaps, in our first draft, he was hiking alone, but in the rewrite, he meets someone. What if this person is a wanted fugitive, and instead of rescuing him, makes his life more difficult? Neither one of these examples would necessarily alter the story’s structure. But they could lead to a more specific character, and could heighten the conflict.
When the impulse is to play it safe and make sure that the story works, we may miss opportunities to make the story more dynamic. We must trust that our story can contain all of the seemingly contradictory behaviors of our characters. Recently, I was working with a writer who was rewriting a story. It was about a teenage girl who felt resentful toward her parents for not permitting her to go on a trip. She said, “My protagonist can’t be too angry at her father. Because she really loves him.” But this is just an idea of her protagonist. Is it possible that a fourteen-year-old girl who really loves her father might allow herself to experience the full breadth of her fury as the result of the security that she feels with him?
We don’t want to limit the dynamic possibilities of our story by being too attached to our ideas of our characters. The rewrite is an invitation to shed our ideas in order to clarify that ineffable impulse that got us started.