Earlier this year, I began a new draft of my novel. I’m still working primarily at the story level–focusing on plot problems, character inconsistencies, etc. Some of these problems leave me feeling either like my muse and I have gone a couple of dozen rounds with gloves on, or like he’s left the building entirely. He was happy to help with the drafting, but he’s leaving the revision to me.
Not everything in this draft appeared so challenging at the outset, however. For instance, I’d workshopped an earlier version of the manuscript and everyone agreed that one of the secondary characters, H, was over-the-top and served as too much of a foil for one of the primary characters. The point was a good one. H’s role needed to be cut back and his character made less sinister.
I began by taking a couple of days to re-imagine H. He needed a new profession. He was no longer as devious as before, so what other personality changes would that alteration trigger? Would he also no longer be so domineering with regard to his family? I decided he would be, but in a quieter way. Where H had been a world-traveler before, now he was the opposite: an immigrant who rarely left the county where he’d settled. In fact, he’d grown distrustful of people who couldn’t stay in one place, including the primary character he eventually would oppose.
With H’s character redrawn, I began to rewrite my novel. The first section promised to be the easiest as it was in the best shape. Aside from a single new scene I needed to add, adjusting H was my biggest task. He’s a secondary character; how hard could the changes be?
I made one change. Then another. And another. Another.
I stopped writing and read the rest of the section. My breakfast began to churn in my stomach as a truth first peeked through the words on the page, then tore through the narrative until I couldn’t deny its presence: much of the tension in this section of the novel emanated from the conflict between H and the primary character in question.
I was so tempted to start revising again, to tell myself what I’d discovered wasn’t a big deal and I could write it away if I just dove back in. But I knew that would be a mistake. This adjustment to a minor character and his relationship to a primary character had revealed a potentially huge flaw in my novel, and I had to stop and ask myself hard, big-picture questions: Why is a secondary character responsible for so much of the tension in the early part of the novel? Should he actually be a primary character? Should this conflict between him and the current primary character have a starring role? The starring role? Is this the book I should be writing?
Answering these questions was painful, because I knew if the answer to any of them turned out to be yes, it could mean I’d spent hundreds of hours writing the wrong book. But I had to be honest with myself. I needed to understand whether my writing had just veered off course a bit or if, in fact, my error held within it a deeper meaning–and a better book.
A clear, trepidatious examination of H showed me that yes, he could serve as a devious, multi-dimensional starring character. Moreover, his relationship with the primary character did hold the potential for a great thriller or spy novel. But that story wasn’t this story, nor, most importantly, did it need to be.
I won’t tell you how long it took me to arrive at this conclusion. But I will tell you that my hair is grayer now than it was when I began considering the question.
I returned to revising H and the first section of the manuscript, fearful that I might lose some of the tension but also knowing that I was fine-tuning it in a way that made it more appropriate for the literary novel it is. I’m sure I won’t be satisfied with this draft when I read it later; there will be gaps and inconsistencies after all of this rewriting. But that’s okay. That’s what future drafts are for.
What I initially assumed would be an easy rewrite of a secondary character has evolved into an enormous amount of work. Practically every time I sit down at the computer, the ripple effect from altering H confronts me, whether it’s asking a big question about the nature of my story or discovering I’ve used him in some other, more minor way that no longer works. H may be a secondary character, but changing him is changing my whole book.