From the Ashes of Old Tales: on Recycling Characters

Sometimes, a story doesn’t work out. Not enough time, plot doesn’t make sense, the list goes on for reasons why a book idea might get scrapped. But does that mean all that plotting need to go waste? Not at all, which is why this post, I’m going to talk about about recycling…recycling old characters, that is.

I’ve been creating new worlds and stories for years, from fanfiction in my youth to college tabletop campaigns and my published original works nowadays. It’s no surprise that I’ve built up a steady stock of characters over this time…as in, enough to populate at least a small town. Some are newer; most of the characters in my short stories, for example, are made specifically for that story. But others, I’ve been writing and re-writing for years. In Bones and Bourbon alone, I’ve had Retz around since Christmas of 2009, Jarrod was created a few months later, and Nalem was created before either of them in 2007.

(Meaning Nalem’s been around as long as a pre-teen, which explains a lot about what it’s like writing him, now that I think about it.)

Of course, these long-time characters have changed quite a lot since their inception. Retz is ace instead of a cowardly womanizer, Nalem is no longer a benevolent demi-god of darkness (much as he may claim to be), and Jarrod…is still a monster-fighting alcoholic, but now with a boatload of identity issues and a steady boyfriend. Heck, said boyfriend Farris was meant to be a one-time character in my first-ever tabletop campaign, but the players attached to him so much that I kept him around and snuck him into a book, where the readers then attached to him, and now he’s one of the main characters.

So, how does one recycle and reinvent characters? If their details and storylines get changed so much, are they even the same person—and if the answer is no, does that matter?

To explain how this process works, I’m going to explain one of my more extreme examples. I’m going to talk about Nalem.

For those who haven’t read Bones and Bourbon yet—first, please do so if dark fantasy action with bad puns is your thing. Second, Nalem is the main antagonist of the story, an ancient spirit who controls bones and experiences the world through a vessel whose body he steals, that currently being protagonist Retz Gallows. Yet as I mentioned above, I first made him as a benevolent deity, despite him being a demi-god of darkness. What changed, and how much of the old Nalem has stuck around over the past eleven years?

We begin with college, when I’m first working on the Deadly Drinks series and trying to figure out how Retz’s powers work. He’d had the bizarre bone-controlling powers since the moment I made him, but I’d decided I wanted there to be a drawback. (I was super invested in magic having equivalently powerful drawbacks in those days; probably from watching too much Full Metal Alchemist.) I had just finished the first draft of Bones and Bourbon, a draft so early it holds no similarity to the finished product, and Retz spent it all alone in his head…save for a key moment in the climax when he was rescued from possession by a sinister voice in his head whispering “Mine” as the spell was broken.

I wanted to know who that voice belonged to. I tried to make a new antagonist, but all I found were stereotypical creepy necromancers. I wanted someone new. I turned to my roster of characters with no stories of their own, which held an already sizable lineup by the time I turned eighteen.

It didn’t take long to stumble upon Nalem. He already had the design in place; back when he was a character with a body, his trademarks were flowing pale hair, thick sunglasses, and a visible spine that descended into a tail with spiked vertebrae. Even without his body, Nalem was a smooth talking immortal who thought he was better at hiding his temper than he was, insisted he was a hero even when others called him a villain, and already had a history of meddling in the lives of other characters for reasons he believed benevolent.

I still had a lot of work to do in turning him from benevolent demi-god to a wicked body-snatching spirit. The toughest thing about recycling characters is deciding what elements to keep and what to throw away; it’s far too easy to force details in just because it’s supposedly integral to the character. I scrapped a tragic love for a goddess of light, deciding there’d be no true deities appearing in the Deadly Drinks books, and set aside his right-hand soldier for a more high fantasy venture (though somehow, this character ended up in the scifi novella instead…) Nalem always had a musical focus for his powers, but his original castanets didn’t seem quite as fitting for Retz, hence the switch to a far more menacing viola. He lost his family, his backstory, and even his body—but that core identity remained.

Could this Nalem still be called the same character as the original demi-god? In terms of design and backstory, there’s almost no similarity past the skeletal theme. But personality wise? New Nalem was a twist on the old, a musing on what would’ve happened if a kind deity was accused of wickedness too many times, even by his own followers. To quote a certain Blue Öyster Cult song, “If he really thinks we’re the devil, then let’s send him to Hell.”

Thus, we had an antagonist, a counterpoint to Retz who stands in his way from within his own head. And from this twist in his original concept, I found a theme for the Deadly Drinks series in exploring what happens when one’s noble purpose becomes corrupted, plus some commentaries on the pitfalls of immortality. Readers loved to hate him so much that instead of making a one-word debut in the climax, he’s right there in Chapter 1 and keeps up his arrogant sarcasm for the whole book. Not bad for a character born from doodling edgy designs in my notebook during class.

And sometimes, characters are like notebooks. They acquire notes and scribbles and odd extra tidbits in the margins. Sometimes, all that paper gets recycled into a brand new notebook. It’s usually not 100% recycled material, says right there on the sticker; some bits are old, some are new, but all the paper’s still blank and waiting for you to spill ink upon.

~Dorian