A Different Theory of Evolution

One of the things that has surprised me most about writing is how characters can change as a story unfolds. In spite of having a rough idea of what role a character is going to play and what are the primary attributes of that character, I’ve had characters change in ways I hadn’t anticipated as I work through a book. I’m not talking about deliberately mapping out a character’s growth. I’m talking about something unplanned and unanticipated. Sometimes the change starts to appear during dialog, and the character’s responses just aren’t what I initially had in mind. The result can be that the lines I write for a character come as a complete surprise to me, which is odd because I’m the one writing them! I know that may sound strange, but there it is.

Here’s an example: One of the characters in my upcoming book The Shadow Chamber was, as I thought about the story, a villain of sorts, a principled villain, but a villain just the same. I decided a few weeks back that he would have an affair with the wife of a hopelessEvolution of a Character traitor whose life is such a mess due to his gambling debts and drinking that he’s an easy target for the opposition. His bad habits also provoke a degree of sympathy for his long-suffering wife. Okay, so far, so good, and simple enough. But as I started writing the scenes necessary for the affair, I started liking my principled villain more and more. I think I’ve now made him too likeable to be a credible villain (notwithstanding the fact that he’s sleeping with someone else’s wife), and as a result I’ve had to make some major changes to how the book/story will end.

I honestly like the changes, both to the character and the ending. The character is now more complex, less predictable, and perhaps more human, and that makes an unpredictable ending more plausible. But the fact is that he didn’t start out that way. Something in the way I decided to approach those key scenes moved him from one category to another, and much of it happened as I wrote a few pages of dialog between him and the woman he has an affair with.

This character’s evolution isn’t the first I’ve experienced. Each time it’s a surprise, and each time it’s a source of delight. It feels as if the characters are revealing themselves to me rather than being brought to life by me. I don’t want to make this into any sort of mystic experience. It’s not. But it is rather more than simply coming up with a plan and executing it. No doubt, writing is much more than that.