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Quest Creep (or; how characters evolve, change or just wander off)

So, you start a series of books, and you’ve got a plan. Your pivotal events have been envisaged, and then carefully plotted to happen in a logical way. Revelations and twists all get sequenced in, and you try and imagine each scene from everyone’s point of view, so they work naturally.

What impels it all forward, though, are characters, and like real people, your new imaginary friends have personalities that mature during the story, meaning that by the time they arrive at your main scenes, they are likely to be different people from those you envisaged when you imagined the scene originally. They’re therefore prone to do something unexpected, dragging your story down other paths and making a tangled mess of one’s nicely structured plan.

Before I’d written a book, I’d heard writers say much the same thing, and I’d listened and thought, ‘MATE, THEY’RE IMAGINARY. AND YOU IMAGINED THEM. If they’re not doing as you planned, don’t blame them like they’re an external party. Your story, your mess.’

Now I’ve tried it for myself.

The thing I have found is that as you spend time thinking about a character, imagining their face, voice, behaviours, motivations, fears and aspirations, you do start to get a sense of a person, but what really solidifies them is actually writing their scenes – and they ALWAYS turn out a little different from how you imagined them. And when you place that person in your pre-determined scene, you start to see that scene from their perspective. And yep, like actors reading a George Lucas script, they start saying, ‘No, I’m not saying that, and in fact I’m not going to do that thing you want me to do either, because if I do as you’re telling me, I’ll not be being true to myself.’

At that point, something has to give, and almost always the best answer is to let the character be true to themselves, because (1) inconsistent characterisation is a massively bad thing, and (2) adjusting the character’s persona would mean going back to every preceding scene they are involved in and re-interpreting it in line with their ‘new character’, which is a pain, and fraught with continuity risk.

So, like a battle plan, my story plan didn’t survive first contact with the enemy, and you get a fantasy version of ‘Mission Scope – Quest Creep’, if you like!

Certain characters in The Moontide Quartet who I thought would be more important faded to incidental, others who I found it easier to work with stepped up. The more complex characters kept finding new angles on situations to expand their role. Certain characters survived planned deaths, because they still had much to offer and my relationship with my wife and editor might have been terminally damaged.

But – and this important – the overall plan didn’t shift much. The big landmark scenes still came to pass in much the way I’d intended. Most of the character-driven shifts in plot were important but not vital – they still dovetailed with the big picture, and (hopefully) helped make the flow of events feel natural. There’s a balance in all this obviously, and as there’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of trusting your instincts, and a lot of self-reproach and re-work when you try something and find it doesn’t work.

If I were to get specific in a (hopefully) non-spoilerish way:

  • Seth was going to be the lead character of the Lost Legions thread, but Ramon (originally scheduled to follow Alaron around) put his hand up and basically said, ‘Hey, I could have much more fun over there!’

  • Cym similarly was also supposed to accompany Alaron; but when Zaqri walked into the room, everything changed. Zaqri was more or less made up on the spot, and their thread became an exploration of the joys and follies of following your heart instead of your head.

  • Kazim was never originally going to head for Javon, and was going to be the shihad’s ‘boots on the ground’ character, but that left the plot feeling cluttered, so he pointed at Javon and said, ‘Send me in, I’ll sort it out.’

  • Cera kept growing as the story progressed and she was forced to confront more and more difficult situations. And I only actually realised her sexuality in that scene. Originally she was going to end up happily married to a (pliable) Jhafi nobleman.

But Alaron, Ramita and Elena all stuck pretty much to script, as did their rivals Malevorn and Gurvon. Probably this is because their threads were very much at the heart of the main story, and there was less wriggle room, but also because their goals were never ambiguous. For Elena and Gurvon, because they are complicated people, the means sometimes altered, but not the motives or outcomes.

I’m really excited to have reached the end of that story cycle. I learned a lot, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Working with Jo Fletcher has been an absolute privilege – working for the best in the business is a wonderful thing. Already my head is deep into Book One of the new series – The Sunsurge Quartet – with many new characters and new situations to plot/plan/adjust. And just like Moontide, the Sunsurge characters are fully alive in my mind, fighting their corners and determined by hook or crook to be the lead character, or at the least, avoid that knife in the back in the penultimate chapter.

See you in the Sunsurge!


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