Character Evolution: When Your Mystery Protagonist Takes a New Direction

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Change in character direction, when you are writing your first draft, will present a conundrum for your reader. They won’t understand why your character changed. Wait! She was friendly and now she is mean? He was wise and now he’s acting like a novice detective? 

The change is a testament to the organic nature of storytelling. However, when your mystery protagonist begins to change in ways you hadn’t anticipated, it may feel like losing control over your narrative. Such shifts can threaten the integrity of the plot, disrupt the narrative flow, or even alter the mystery’s outcome.

When you understand why these changes occur and how to adjust your draft strategically, you allow your protagonist to grow in ways that enrich your story, making it more compelling and vibrant for your reader. Or you can adopt the new character persona and go back to adjust what you have written so far. 

Either way, you must acknowledge the character changer and adjust your story.

This character change happens more often with discovery writers (pantsers), but it can happen with planners, too.

Recognize the Shift

Before you can address the evolution of your mystery protagonist, you first need to recognize that a change is indeed occurring. This initial step is crucial to ensure that any modifications to your character serve the story’s overall narrative and thematic goals.

Identify Changes

The evolution of your protagonist might reveal itself in various ways. For example

  • they’ve developed new reactions to situations that were not initially characteristic 
  • their motivations have shifted, subtly altering the story’s direction
  • Their speech patterns change 

These changes often emerge during moments of conflict or decision-making, where the character’s new choices might surprise you, the writer.

To spot these shifts, look for inconsistencies between your character’s actions or thoughts in earlier and later parts of the manuscript. If your detective suddenly becomes less cautious without a prior event justifying this change, or if their interactions with other characters take on a new tone, these are signs that your protagonist’s character might be shifting.

Understand the Cause

Character evolution can be sparked by several factors. It might be a natural consequence of the character’s growth as they face challenges within the story, suggesting that the initial portrayal was too rigid or simplistic. 

Alternatively, the evolution could stem from a deeper understanding of the character that develops as you spend more time with them. Your subconscious mind is at work, enriching the character beyond your initial outline.

Another possibility is that the plot demands this evolution; as you write, you realize that the story’s conflict or resolution requires the protagonist to change in specific ways. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost control but rather that your story is organically maturing.

Impact on Plot and Mystery

First, understand how your protagonist’s evolution impacts the overall mystery. If your detective’s character changes, it can affect how they interpret clues, interact with suspects, or confront the antagonist. This, in turn, can alter the pacing of your mystery, the distribution of red herrings, and the story’s climax.

Recognizing and understanding these shifts are the first steps toward harnessing character evolution as a powerful tool in your mystery writing arsenal. By identifying why and how your protagonist is changing, you make informed decisions about how to integrate this evolution into your narrative, enhancing the depth and complexity of both your characters and plot.

Strategic Draft Adjustment 

Once you’ve embraced your protagonist’s evolution and understood its implications, the next critical step is to thoughtfully integrate this development into your draft. Adjusting your narrative requires a strategic approach that respects the story’s integrity while accommodating your character’s growth. Here’s how you can navigate this stage:

Revising Plot Points

Your protagonist’s character evolution can necessitate changes to key plot points to maintain coherence and logical progression. Examine your story’s significant moments – such as discoveries, confrontations, and resolutions – to ensure they align with your character’s evolved motivations and capabilities. 

This might mean altering a clue’s discovery method if your detective has grown more introspective or changing the nature of a confrontation if they’ve become more empathetic.

Revisit the sequence of events with your protagonist’s new lens, ensuring that their actions and decisions feel natural and consistent. You may find that some scenes need to be rewritten, added, or even removed to better fit the character’s development and maintain the mystery’s pacing and suspense.

Consistency Check

Character consistency doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t change; it means their evolution should make sense within the story’s context. Perform a thorough review of your manuscript, paying close attention to your detective’s behavior, dialogues, and decision-making. 

Look for any abrupt changes in personality or skills that aren’t justified by the narrative or the character’s experiences. 

If you identify inconsistencies, consider incorporating scenes or reflections that logically bridge the character’s old and new selves. This may involve showing the protagonist grappling with a particular case aspect that challenges their beliefs or showcasing a learning moment that sparks a change in their approach.

Feedback and Revision

Get feedback from trusted beta readers, writing partners, or editors is invaluable at this stage. Choose reviewers who are familiar with the mystery genre and your writing style, and ask them to focus on your protagonist’s character arc and its impact on the plot. Encourage them to point out any character inconsistencies or plot incongruities they notice.

Use their feedback to refine your adjustments, ensuring that your detective’s evolution feels both intentional and seamless. Be open to multiple rounds of revisions. The goal is to strengthen the coherence and depth of your mystery, making the character changes an integral and enriching part of the story.

By revising plot points, ensuring consistency, and embracing the revision process, you can skillfully integrate your protagonist’s character evolution into your draft. This strategic approach allows you to maintain control over your narrative while providing the flexibility to adapt and deepen your storytelling.

Techniques to Manage Character Evolution

Effective techniques help you understand your evolving character better and ensure the development enriches the narrative rather than detracts from it. Here’s how to employ some of these strategies.

Character Bible

Create a full background for your protagonist in your character bible. Work on your character’s background before you begin writing your story. You’ll have a full understanding of your protagonist—likes and dislikes, reactions to pressure or danger, interview techniques, speech patterns, etc. 

The more you know about your character from the beginning, the easier it is to incorporate those details into your story as you write. 

Character Journal

Maintain a character journal to track your protagonist’s evolution throughout the story. In this journal, write entries from your character’s perspective at different points in the plot, focusing on their feelings, motives, and reflections on events. This technique allows you to explore your character’s internal landscape in depth, ensuring that their evolution is consistent and believable. 

As the story progresses, refer back to earlier entries to gauge how your character has changed and identify pivotal moments that catalyzed these changes. Character journals not only deepen your understanding of your protagonist but also serve as a reference to maintain consistency in their voice and actions.

Outline Flexibility

While outlines are foundational to structuring your mystery, allowing room for flexibility accommodates character growth. Start with a loose framework that outlines major plot points and key scenes but be open to adjusting it as your characters develop. 

This approach encourages you to think creatively about how the story unfolds and how character evolution might lead to more compelling or nuanced plot outcomes.

When your character takes an unexpected turn, revisit your outline to consider how this evolution impacts the story. Adjust the outline accordingly, ensuring that plot developments remain coherent and serve the revised character arc. This method allows you to stay focused on your narrative goals while embracing the organic nature of storytelling.

Character Interviews

Conducting interviews with your protagonist is another effective way to manage and understand their evolution. Pose questions that explore their background, motivations, fears, and aspirations, both at the start of the story and as they develop. Ask how they feel about other characters, plot events, and the mysteries they’re solving. 

This exercise will reveal new facets of your character’s personality and motivations that influence the story’s direction. Insights gained from character interviews can guide adjustments to your draft, ensuring that character evolution feels authentic and integrates smoothly into the plot.

By employing character journals, embracing outline flexibility, and conducting character interviews, you’ll better understand and manage your protagonist’s evolution. These techniques empower you to make informed decisions about how character growth impacts the plot, ensuring that your mystery remains engaging and coherent from start to finish.

Decide Against Character Evolution

You may find that you might conclude that a particular character change doesn’t serve the story well. Making a conscious decision not to pursue a character evolution requires careful consideration of the narrative’s integrity, thematic coherence, and overall reader engagement. Here’s how to approach this decision and ensure your story remains on the path you envision.

Assess the Impact on the Narrative

The first step in deciding against a character change is to critically assess its impact on the narrative. Ask yourself whether this evolution aligns with the story’s themes, the mystery’s complexity, and the character’s role within the plot. 

Consider if the change enhances the suspense and engaging elements of the mystery or detracts from them. Weigh the long-term narrative effects of maintaining your character’s original traits versus allowing them to evolve in the contemplated direction.

If you determine that the character change complicates the plot unnecessarily, undermines established themes, or diminishes the mystery’s effectiveness, these are strong indicators that the original character conception should be preserved.

Maintain Consistency and Reader Expectations

Character consistency is crucial for maintaining reader engagement and satisfaction. Readers invest in your protagonist based on their initial presentation and the expectation that their core traits and motivations will guide them through the story’s challenges. 

A sudden or unjustified character shift disrupts reader immersion and diminishes their connection to the narrative.

Evaluate how the potential character change aligns with reader expectations established at the beginning of your story. If the evolution risks alienating readers or betraying their understanding of the character, deciding against it may be in your story’s best interest.

Techniques for Realigning Your Character

Once you’ve decided not to proceed with a character change, the next step is to realign your character with their original traits and motivations. This process may involve revising scenes where the character began to deviate, reinforcing their core attributes, and ensuring their decisions and actions reflect their established persona.

Review and Revise: Go through your manuscript, identifying where the unintended character evolution began. Revise these sections to realign the character’s actions and thoughts with their original outline.

Strengthen Core Traits: Use pivotal scenes and dialogue to emphasize your protagonist’s core traits, ensuring these moments showcase the characteristics that define them. This reinforcement serves as a reminder to the reader of who the character is at their core.

Consistency Checks: Implement additional rounds of consistency checks, paying close attention to later chapters to ensure no remnants of the disregarded character evolution remain. This might require adjustments to plot developments that were influenced by the initially considered character change.

Deciding not to follow through with a character change is as significant as deciding to allow one. Carefully evaluating the impact on your narrative, maintaining consistency with established character traits, and employing techniques to realign your protagonist, you ensure that your mystery story retains its coherence, respects its themes, and fulfills reader expectations. 

Your deliberate choice emphasizes the importance of authorial intent and narrative control in crafting compelling mystery fiction.

Master the Art of Character Constancy

Writing a mystery involves much more than crafting puzzles for readers to solve; it’s about creating characters that are complex, dynamic, and, above all, true to the story being told. By employing strategies such as character journals, embracing outline flexibility, and conducting character interviews, authors can navigate character evolution with precision and creativity. And, when necessary, making the bold choice to stay the course requires courage and a clear vision of what your story needs to thrive.

The decisions you make about your characters’ paths are the brushstrokes that turn the canvas of your narrative into a masterpiece of mystery literature.

Unlock the full potential of your mystery writing with personalized coaching at Zara Altair’s Mystery School. Start today and take the first step to crafting the compelling, page-turning mystery you’ve always wanted to write.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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