You’re busy writing your draft romance novel. Things were going well…until you started getting a nagging thought; there is something very familiar about your new fictional character.
You can’t put your finger on it. Why does it feel like you have met them before in another life? The hairs on your neck stand upright and a shiver shoots down your spine.
“Hang on,” you mutter, whilst staring at your laptop screen or notebook. “Have we met before?”
Loved ones and pets frown as to them you look like you are talking to yourself.
You scratch your head whilst your brain frantically starts to assess the facts; you created this new character only a few days ago and there was nothing strange about their character birth.
Hang on a minute…they did come to a life a bit too quickly, but you put that down to your genius imagination.
They take direction from you a little too well, but you put that down to being an amazing writer.
This new character is giving you the creeps. The tattoo on their shoulder is setting off alarm bells and that cold steely stare is giving you goosebumps. Your head suddenly becomes awash with grizzly murder scenes, blood stained walls and dimly lit alleyways.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” you say, to your character, “but I can’t stop thinking about dark stuff when I see you. Why is that?”
Your character smirks and look away. They are hiding something from you.
Feeling a bit strange you grip the desk and hiss, “who are you?”
Loved ones and pets exit the room muttering, “here she goes again.”
A mischievous smile slides across your character’s pale face and your eyes widen with surprise. “Oh my god, its you from that awful thriller I binned a few years ago!,” you exclaim. “The one which should have been a horror novel, as you got carried away with the sight of fresh blood. How the devil are you?”
Your character grins. “Surprise! I’m back!”
“It’s been too long! Never thought you were one for sweet romance,” you say, with a chuckle.
She laughs, with a mysterious glint in her eyes. “Fictional people can change you know!”
Recycled characters can appear in two ways:
- You consciously go to an old story which you ditched, take out the strong character and insert him or her into your new story.
- You unconsciously start writing an old character into a story and then realise a little way down the line that you have met this fictional person before.
There are many reasons why we consciously or unconsciously recycle characters:
- Creative people have a tendency to be hoarders. We have trouble throwing stuff away, especially good characters.
- As my writer friend Icy Sedgwick told me (via a tweet), some characters are simply cast into the wrong stories and recycling them helps to find them the right tale.
- Good characters leave imprints on our minds. Sometimes the larger than life ones are hard to forget.
- On the negative side recycling characters could be a sign you are staying in your comfort zone. This character could be someone you are comfortable with writing and perhaps having them in your new story gives you some reassurance and support.
- We have unfinished business with certain characters.
- Sometimes our sub conscious mind does the thinking for us when it comes to character selection.
So, how do you handle recycled characters?
If you take the route of unconscious recycling be prepared for an emotional reunion. A few months ago I found one of my old characters masquerading as one of my new characters in one of my drafts. It was quite a moment when I demanded she reveal herself. Bit like getting a surprise visit from a long-lost friend.
Good characters are hard to create and it’s a shame to waste to let them gather dust in files. I think we put ourselves off going back through old shelved stories as we once labelled them ‘worthless’. I always think of this quote by Thomas Browne, ‘rough diamonds may sometimes be mistaken for worthless pebbles.’ Don’t write off old manuscripts because they might contain interesting and versatile characters.
Recycling could be seen as a form of revision. By bringing your old character back and weaving into a new story you are improving and enhancing them.
Be careful of repetition. Are you bringing this character back time and time again? Is the recycling a sign that you are in your writing comfort zone? Too wary about creating anyone else? I have experienced this and last year had to force myself to create different characters.
I like to think old characters have come back for a reason. There is a reason why they didn’t sink along with the story you ditched all those years ago. You and your character clearly have unfinished business.
Try not to think about the old story too much as you might find that starts to reappear too.
Refrain from reminiscing with your recycled character about the good times you both enjoyed with your old story. It will annoy other characters.
The next time you have a weird hunch about one of your characters, take a closer look and see who they really are!
Take care out there everyone.