Recycling Characters

2015 December 5 - recycling characters

Story Idea but Don’t Know Where to Begin?

If you happened to read my November 7/15 Post, “Using Backstory without Using It” and took it to heart and tried it, you’ll be thrilled to learn that all your hard work might have paid off.

Instead of sitting there looking at a blank screen as you try to begin your next work, grab one of those minor characters from your last novel — how about the gas jockey, the one your main character asked for directions? Have him come into a vast inheritance, clean him up a bit, give him a shave, a new hairstyle, make him avoid an accident while driving his Porsche along some back road, end up in the ditch, have a charming young country bumpkin pull up in the tow truck …

You won’t have to do any research on him at all. You’ve already done it. Perhaps you might use a minor female character from one of your other novels — one set in the city … Hmm. Maybe that “country bumpkin” isn’t so country after all.

Easy-peasy when we have so much of the hard slogging already done, isn’t it?


Do as I Say, Not as I Did

We mustn’t include a lot of backstory in the actual story itself. Best to imply it; have a neighbour mention something; have a snarky comment come up in a patch of conflict-ridden dialogue, a comment that indicates there’s … yes, more to the story! Show. Don’t tell.

I spent years writing my first novel and I gave a backstory to every single character in it. And some of these characters existed only to be killed by the Watcher or the Soul Eaters that followed him around. They were Extras. That’s all.

I had one bad guy, the Watcher, and a bunch of minor bad guys, the Soul Eaters. Both the Watcher and the Soul Eaters were henchmen (henchpersons?) of the really bad guy, one of the Elder Gods (not one Elder God, no, there were several to choose from).

I gave each of my characters a full life in the actual novel, and man­aged to entwine everything into the story. Uh. More or less.

Even a guy named Dave, who was an only-mentioned woman’s husband had his back story included. The novel was way too complicated for the storyline so bogged it down. Bogged it down? Dragged it bloody backwards!

The Good News?

I have been extracting screenplays out of that novel and now have three separate but connected stories in the works, The Soul Eaters and its two prequels. I also have a well-developed fictional town now, complete with inhab­i­tants (that I know well), for yet another story — or two or three?

Most of us wonder how Stephen King can be so prolific in his writings. I’m a fan, so have read pretty much all of his works and know that he sets most of them in the same area (Maine), often refers to characters from other books, like store owners or sheriffs, etc., so he no doubt hangs on to most of his minor characters, too. SK fans like his books because he makes us feel like we are in familiar terri­tory with familiar people who are real to us.

So by all means, create extensive backstories for everyone and keep them on file. You can pull them out in the future as full-blown characters in their own books, movies, and stories.

Dave (the dismemberee from my vast opus mentioned above) made it into The Soul Eaters screenplay as a fully developed supporting character. Your work won’t go to waste unless you let it.


Next post — Be Kind to Your Critters

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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