My latest book taught me so many things about writing, but the thing I was surprised by the most was the character development.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written a story with these characters. It’s not even the fifth or ninth time. Their first story sparked an idea in my brain almost ten years ago and, while the story, their world, and the relationships have changed, many components of the characters’ basic personalities have not.
Until this version.
See, many of the stories I wrote about them featured the two main characters as older individuals. They were in their thirties. In the book I just finished (soon to be released) I dialed them back and these kids are barely into their twenties. I made the decision to do that because that time of their lives is fraught with danger, high stakes, bad decisions, and they are muddling through the first days after the end of a war. I had all of that information about them in my head, but I knew I needed to set it down on paper so I could have a solid foundation for the later stories about them I still wanted to visit.
The thing about characters is that they aren’t the same people at 18 and 22 as they are at 30 and 33. For one, the confidence that comes with age and having survived a bunch of crap isn’t there. Neither are the settled personalities and the wisdom that comes with distance and perspective. Even though I’d known these characters for years, I didn’t know their younger selves, and that presented some interesting hurdles I had to negotiate while writing this piece.
The biggest obstacle was dialing back what these characters know about their world and how things work. Just because you grow up in a world doesn’t mean you really know much about it, depending on how you were raised and what you were exposed to. I had no idea what a one-way street was until I was about 16 or 17. I grew up in a small town that didn’t even have a proper stop light, just a yield light, and every street was a two-way. Sometimes an all-360-way if you were an old guy in a golf cart. These characters, by contrast, have an entire world where magic and monsters and gods and legends roam, and they don’t know about all of them, and not knowing can prove deadly instead of just embarrassing. Sometimes both.
Another hurdle was the insecurities of the main POV character who, in later years, has confidence coming out of her ears and is fully settled in her skin. I won’t lie, it took me two drafts to figure out I needed to throw out a lot of her inner dialogue, actions, and quippy one-liners that she would not have the guts to pull off at this young age. Once I finally accepted that, moving forward was easier, because I could see where she was going, but she needed to go through a lot more fire and shenanigans before she got there.
On the plus side, already knowing what these characters will be like in 10-15 years is like having a cheat sheet I can refer to. Like having the ending mapped out before you start chapter one, that knowledge provided me with a goal to shoot for. Instead of staring into blank space, I then had tools at my disposal that I could play with and say: If A and B happens here, that will lead to C and cause E, which will fit in with where they are at M.
The story became even more delightful to write when I had an end goal to work towards.
Above all, I loved playing around with the younger versions of these characters. The world is fresh and unknown, the danger feels tenfold, and the world seems a much bigger and mysterious place. Well worth the headaches and problems it took to finish the book.