When A Character Morphs

Collage-morph-weird-6491132-hThe protagonist in my WIP just morphed.  When I started writing her, she was one way and now suddenly she's another.  (With the demands of launching my novel, I haven't had the time to actually put these changes into effect, but I've taken lots of notes.  And I think about it all the time.) It's a subtle but important change and it makes a big difference in how she views the world and reacts to the people around her. 

This also happened while I was writing Emma Jean.  In that novel, there's a character named Ava who's a young whippersnapper of a middle-schooler–sassy, smart, and slightly scarred.  She's one of my favorite characters in the book.  Yet she started out as a shy 5-year-old with little personality.  I well remember the night I went to my critique group and someone gently asked me if it was really necessary for the 5-year-old Ava to be in the story.  The next day, I boarded a plane to L.A., and as I did, the current Ava sprang to full, glorious life.  This version of her was the character who was meant to be–I just hadn't discovered her yet.

And so, too, with Jemima–while I know a lot about the externals of her life and what happened to her I don't yet know her inner landscape or her full backstory.  I also don't feel I've yet discovered her full voice.  So this recent change is welcome.  It tells me I'm getting closer to her, that I'm starting to know her better and it reassures me that the rest will come in due time.

But how do you actually deal with it when a character morphs like this?  Here are some suggestions:

–Don't panic.  Usually when it happens, it's a good thing.  Yes, there will be unexpected rewriting and changing things around.  But it's going to make your novel a richer, deeper book, because it's a sign that you understand your character at a new level.

–Take good notes.  Lots of them.  This is a good time for free writing to get a handle on the new shape of the character. 

–Write in "as if" form.   If you're in first draft mode, keep moving on.  Don't stop to rewrite everything that has changed because of the character morphing.  Instead, write as if the character changes have already been made.  This works most of the time, though once in awhile the changes are so profound that you have to go back.  Just don't get mired in rewriting!

–Unpack your story.  Once you've finished the first draft and it's time to make the character changes, you've got to make room for them.  The common metaphor for this is unpacking, emptying a space to put in new stuff.  Go paragraph by paragraph and pull them apart to insert new material.

–Take heart.  You may be dismayed by the character changes that appear to you, especially if they are big ones.  You may be tempted to ignore these ideas.  But don't–that pisses the muse off.  And besides, these are the very ideas that will make your novel the story you want it to be.

How have you dealt with a character morphing?  Please leave a comment.

**Speaking of characters, Emma Jean launches on February 12th, and I'm celebrating with a virtual release party, complete with prizes!  Find out more and sign up here.

Photo by shannonkringen, used under Creative Commons agreement.

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12 Responses to When A Character Morphs

  1. Sandy 02/01/2013 at 13:25 #

    I’m going through a lot of this right now with my current WIP. I’m actually a little relieved to know that it’s pretty normal.
    I like the ‘unpacking’ metaphor. I use it in the extreme. I put each paragraph on its own page. It helps me focus on the actual content and structure without distraction and allows me to better revise. Weird, I know. :)

  2. Charlotte Dixon 02/01/2013 at 13:31 #

    Oh wow, that's actually a great tip, Sandy.  Maybe the slightest bit obsessive, but then we writers tend to be that way.  I think it could be really helpful in this situation, when you're trying to make room for something new.  Thanks!

  3. Zan Marie 02/01/2013 at 13:51 #

    I love it when a character morphs! In my current WIP I had a mean “friend” and a sweet friend until the mean one, stood up and cried that she was both, but more sweet than mean, dag gum it! And there’s a reason, too. This is the layrering and depth we want to find. Those are good suggestions, too for how to deal with characters who refuse to be who we though they were. ; )

  4. Charlotte Dixon 02/01/2013 at 14:06 #

    I agree! And I enjoyed reading about how your character morphed 

  5. Jessica Baverstock 02/02/2013 at 00:36 #

    Sometimes I have to force a character to morph because he/she isn’t working in their current form. Usually I do this by forcing a change of voice.

    Other times I give my character a good talking to on the page. I did this once and my character started talking straight back at me. Then came an 800 word tirade on everything this character disliked about books and how authors are always putting their noses in other people’s stories. After that we understood each other much better!

  6. J.D. 02/02/2013 at 04:56 #

    The comment from your critique group is interesting. I suppose every character in a book should serve a purpose. But life certainly isn’t that way. You may be completely absorbed in what you’re doing, lost in your current life or professional crisis, but 99.9% of the people you meet don’t give a rat’s ass. In today’s world, even if it’s a world you’re creating, there probably should be a little room for apathy 😉

  7. Charlotte Dixon 02/02/2013 at 08:15 #

    Jessica, That's a great process for the rest of us to emulate!  And I suspect it is a different side of the same coin–you're uncovering your character's true self, just in a different way, by "forcing" the issue, rather than waiting for it to emerge.  Good to remember.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 02/02/2013 at 08:17 #

    I do believe that every character in a novel needs to serve a purpose.  And, while I think many spiritual traditions would disagree with you that the people you meet don't serve a purpose, that's why we're writers–we get to create the worlds our characters live in.  I think that's one of the great things about being a writer–it gives purpose to our lives because we're busy creating meaning out of it.

  9. Elizabeth (Beth) Westmark 02/03/2013 at 09:43 #

    Super post, Charlotte, and it helps me understand (as a first-time novel writer) what the heck is going on! :)

  10. Charlotte Dixon 02/03/2013 at 10:11 #

    Thanks, Beth!  I'm so excited you're making good progress on your novel!

  11. Kate Arms-Roberts 02/06/2013 at 08:53 #

    My protagonist and her entire band of allies just morphed. The amount of rewriting this will require is huge, but I am confident that the entire work will benefit.

    It’s nice to see other writer’s go through similar processes and remember that this is all just part of the process.


  12. Charlotte Dixon 02/06/2013 at 13:27 #

    It sure can be daunting when that happens, Kate–especially a whole cast of characters.  But I do believe it is also good news in that it means you're really connecting with the work.

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