When leopards change their spots

About writing

Writing by Mo FanningWhat happens when you decide to change the personality of a supporting character midway through writing? We’ve all done it – on purpose or – let’s be honest – accidentally. Soaps do it all the time. One minute the buff, blonde actor turns heads. The next he’s bald and skinny with a drink problem.

In the story I’m trying to tell right now, I decided the disapproving social climbing mother was too obvious. Sure, there’s humour to find in someone who twitches net curtains and social climbs at the golf club. It also means appropriating Hyacinth Bouquet. My character had become a trope. And so, I decided to take her in a different direction. She became a one-time hippy, once arrested and still determined to rebel. I’ll be the first to admit that she’s still a trope. The thing is, I needed her to stand out among others who spend their lives trying to fit in.central casting

It meant my work in progress needed radical surgery. It wouldn’t be enough to rewrite her lines and turn her from hanger-on to maverick. A major personality change would influence those who spin in her orbit. Her daughter, her husband, her immediate family, her friends.

This change presented an opportunity to rewrite whole chapters and skew the humour differently. I’ve been able to talk about how ideals get compromised as our lives change. It also helped me explain better why the main character allowed herself to hold so much in for so long. Why did the meltdown happen so late? When a child has to play the parent, it builds defences.

And then there’s the language – should my character speak differently? I wanted to keep the polite aspirations of middle class in her Waitrose-fuelled life, but expose the past. Of course there’s the temptation to cram back story into dialogue. This is a Bad Thing ™. Nobody says: ‘I know you disagree, darling, but when I was hanging out with communists in the 1980s, we saw things very differently.’ It’s far easier to have my narrator fill in the gaps and keep the dialogue authentic.

Finally, what about the surroundings – the home she helped build built. I thought long and hard about people I know who once considered themselves distinctly left wing. Myself included. As we grew older, lives changed. Souvenirs of rebellion gathered dust in cupboards and drawers, but we still want people to know we’re different. We have an edge.

As an exercise in unblocking the flow of my story, it had massive impact, and I’d go so far as recommending this, should you find your writing blocked.

Have you ever changed someone midway through? Have you ever dared recast your main character?

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