Writers tend to think of themselves as the creators of worlds and characters, to some degree or another. But what happens when your characters take on lives of their own? How do you realign your expectations and allow them, and your story, to develop organically? In this week’s guest blog, author Felicia Bridges explores those questions and shares her advice.
What’s a Writer to Do When
Her Villain Turns Over a New Leaf?
By Felicia Bridges
Writing fiction is a process of discovery as much as creativity for many writers, myself included. My creative process begins with a main character in a predicament, possibly facing a villain, and then allows the characters to lead me down the paths they choose. I usually have a rough outline of my plot in mind, but sometimes my character’s path leads in directions I never expected and really changes my idea of how the story will play out.
In my current work in progress, BoliviaKnight, I started with a character named Hector that I identified as the villain: a drug-dealing, human trafficker who is witnessed at the scene of a murder by my protagonist. Then I discovered he was the younger brother of my damsel in distress, Ranza, and equally a victim despite the opening scene that depicts him as a murderer. He turns out to be a good guy who rescues his sister and helps bring down a human trafficking ring.
So what’s a writer to do when her villain turns over a new leaf?
I started by allowing Hector to reveal who he was. When it first occurred to me that he was Ranza’s little brother, I spent some time interviewing him about his childhood to understand how he ended up where I found him on the first page of BoliviaKnight in an alley with a dead body at his feet. Hopefully this doesn’t sound as crazy as I think it does. Basically, I pose a series of questions about the character and my imagination responds with the answer. It’s a little bit like a psychological test where you respond with the first thought that comes to mind following a prompt, but the initial thought is just a lump of clay that you may shape, refine, crush and reshape until it becomes usable.
Some of the questions I thought through to understand Hector were: What had happened in their early years that led him to work for a crime boss? Why didn’t he try to escape the control of this kingpin? What would have to happen in order for him to stand up to the real villain and overcome evil with good? What would the consequences be if he did stand up to the villain? How does he feel about his sister and why? What experiences has he shared with his sister that impact their relationship now?
As the story unfolds, I gradually reveal to the reader the relationship that I’ve discovered and the backstory that brought them to this predicament. I sprinkle in hints of the relationship before the big reveal to entice the reader along the path. Understanding the history that led my erstwhile villain to get involved with the wrong crowd helps the reader move from a perspective of judgment and condemnation to empathy for the character. In the end, the story becomes more powerful and the character gains greater depth and dimension as the reader recognizes that, like all of us, every villain has a history and often times, the villain was once the victim. It also communicates an important truth: Each of us is capable of good and evil.
Once I’ve completed the first draft, I go back through the story from the first page and revise the scenes so that any reference to this character shows his behavior and character is consistent throughout the book, even if aspects of his character aren’t revealed yet. I look for opportunities to add subtle clues that will give the reader a sense of discovery and the thrill of solving the puzzle before the relationship is made clear, without making them feel as if they’ve been clobbered over the head with it.
I have at times tried to stick with my original plan despite the character revealing something different. It resulted in the dialogue and action sounding forced and mechanical instead of flowing naturally from what I know of the character. Regardless of whether it is your villain, your heroine, or a side character, understanding their history is essential to writing a story that will resonate with readers and will sound believable. Numerous character interview guidelines are available online to suggest questions for you to walk through in order to better understand the psychology of a character. Not all writers are psychologists, but the more you understand why your character is who he or she is, the more plausible their words and actions will seem.
So when your villain turns over a new leaf, pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea and ask them to tell you all about it.
Felicia Bridges began writing as an Army BRAT learning to enjoy life overseas. Her nomadic childhood created a passion for missions and travel that energizes her writing. Felicia will release CzechMate: The International Mission Force Series on May 16, a thriller that reflects stories as dangerous and frightening as tonight’s world news with a healthy dose of God’s sovereignty and supernatural power and a dash of romance. She is a contributing author for Then Along Came an Angel: Messengers of Deliverance and God’s Provision in Tough Times, a finalist for the 2014 Selah Awards.
Serving in ministry for over twenty years alongside her husband, and the mother of four children, Felicia’s vision is to inspire the next generation to carry the gospel to all nations. Her blog focuses on living on mission wherever life’s adventure leads and is at: www.AdventuresThatInspireAction.wordpress.com.
BoliviaKnight will be the second book in the International Mission Force series, and is scheduled for release in December 2016. CzechMate, the first novel in the International Mission Force series, will be available May 30, 2016.
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