Inasmuch as I am a part of “writing Twitter” I am aware of the common debate between whether plot or character is more important to a book or a story. I don’t really come down on one side or the other, but I find it interesting that, in my own experience, plots and characters materialize in very different ways and from very different places. Where does plot come from? is something I’ll consider later if I get around to it, but what I’m more interested in right now is Where do characters come from? For me, the answer that comes to mind first is cannibalism.
Whenever I find I’m in need of a character, the quick—and usually correct—solution is cannibalize characters from other work I’ve started but never finished because I am incredibly lazy. The best examples of me doing this, consciously or not, are the three main characters of my upcoming time travel novel Fellow Travellers—Bindra Dhar, Solomon Christie, and Zelda Clairing.
First, Bindra—a long time ago I wanted to write a murder mystery revolving around the Winter Olympics. It turns out I don’t know anything about the Olympics so that draft ran out of steam real fast. But one character I really enjoyed writing was Bindra Dhar. In that story, she was going to be a snowboarding champion for the Indian Olympic team. In fact, to come up with her name, I hunted through lists of Indian Olympians until I found Abhinav Bindra, an Indian sport shooter and gold medalist. I don’t really know what drew me to his surname; I just really love how it flows off the tongue. Now, in India, Bindra is typically a family name and not a given name, so if I wanted to give it to my main character, I had to come up with some sort of believable reason.
Bindra the fictional Olympic snowboarder and Bindra the fictional time traveller are obviously two very different Bindras. When I transferred Bindra into Fellow Travellers, some of her pervious character came with her. I supposed that an Olympic snowboarder from India would likely hail from that country’s more mountainous regions, so I decided Bindra Dhar should be from the state of Uttarakhand (as it happens, this is also the birthplace of Abhinav Bindra). But for the most part, time traveller Bindra is very different from snowboarding Bindra. She’s less confident, more introspective, but also more ambitious.
And she can’t snowboard.
Solomon Christie is a little bit different because I never even started writing the draft from whence I cannibalized him. In that iteration, he was an alien prince who visits our planet after neglecting his duties as the lord of our Sun—hence his nickname, Sol. But in pretty much every other respect, time traveller Sol is basically the same as alien Sol, largely because I based him on Shakespeare’s Prince Hal. He’s an arrogant, privileged, ne’er-do-well who has only recently started trying to use his powers for good. Sol became a fast favorite among people who read early drafts of Fellow Travellers, to the point that I ended up giving him a few more scenes (one person compared him to Tyrion Lannister, and I knew I couldn’t deprive readers of more Tyrion). I think the reason that he’s so fun to have in the narrative and so fun to write is because he’s a perfect foil for multiple characters at once—Bindra is ambitious, Zelda is tenacious, Sol is neither.
As opposed to the other two, Zelda was always a time traveller, even if her name wasn’t always Zelda. The first chapter of Fellow Travellers that I wrote was neither the first chapter in the book, nor even the second or third. When I first started writing Fellow Travellers, I was writing something more like a short story, with a man who meets a beautiful stranger in a hotel who turns out to be a time travelling detective trying to solve a crime (I was working in a hotel at the time, and this idea was mostly just the result of my bored daydreams). But I also wanted to write a whole universe of time travel, so that short story was eventually just incorporated into the larger narrative, and Zelda came along with it. Of the three characters I’m focusing on here, Zelda went through the most drastic and frequent changes. She started out very prim and proper—very Victorian—and over time became more ancient, wild, unpredictable and more fun, in my opinion.
I’m certainly not claiming this is some sort of genius method I’ve discovered. I’m sure it’s something pretty much all writers do to one degree or another. Raymond Chandler famously put together the plot for The Big Sleep by cannibalizing parts of his previous short stories—which is partly why The Big Sleep doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I find it to be an efficient method, one I’ll probably keep using as long as my brain keeps daydreaming stories and scrapping them, leaving behind homeless characters ready to be redistributed.