Sometimes I work on a novel, or work with characters, for years before I suddenly realize something new about them. I’ve figured out a character’s motivation, or what caused their most striking character trait, after I’ve finished writing a book. And I feel like saying that wouldn’t make much sense to non-writers–after all, if I didn’t make up their motivation, it doesn’t exist, right? Well, true in a way–but not true in another way. I think most writers experience that click moment, when something comes together or comes to light and it was clearly always supposed to be that way–everything else points to it–you just couldn’t see it before.
Just a few days ago I had what may be my most extreme example of this phenomenon to date. It requires a little backstory. I started writing a version of my current Phantom trilogy thirteen years ago. A lot has changed, but on a fundamental level, my main protagonists Meg Giry and the Phantom have been the same characters since then. I’m still continually learning more about them, uncovering some new character insight, but I’ve felt like I knew them very, very well for a long time.
But there was a kind of missed thing with regard to Meg. You see, I read Gaston Leroux’s original novel all those years ago. But apparently I missed a line that could have changed things–Meg is described as Madame Giry’s older daughter. It’s one word, one grammatical choice, but it means she has a younger sister. I didn’t pick up on that line until I was rereading the book a few years ago–it may even have been because I read a different translation. By then, Meg’s life and her relationship with her mother, largely influenced by the fact that there’s just the two of them (because I did pick up earlier that her father had died) was so set that there was no room for a sister in the picture.
So I figured it was a might have been but I don’t need to be consistent with Leroux in everything–I’m very, very not, in fact–so let it go. But I mentioned this whole story to a friend just this past weekend, and she said…what if her sister died?
Now, if this was just an effort to line up with Leroux, I wouldn’t bother. But it clicked. It fits. It explains why Madame Giry is so protective, and also so unwilling to take nonsense from anyone (she lost her husband and her daughter–she has no patience for trifles). It explains why Meg is looking for a best friend and can’t seem to find one. It explains why she’s drawn to Christine, who seems so innocent and naive, and why Meg wants to look out for her. It explains why Meg and her mother moved to Paris. It explains why she actively works at seeing the good side of life and people, because she knows both can be fleeting, and that it doesn’t always come easy.
It just fits.
I think. Because I’ve known Meg for thirteen years and I never knew she had a deceased little sister, and I may decide in another week that no, it doesn’t really fit who she is after all. A dead father might be enough tragedy in her past. So you might buy this book in a year or so and there won’t be a sister in there after all.
But I also kind of think her sister is named Gabrielle and had blond hair like Meg and they probably wanted to have adventures together, and Gabrielle might have been the last person, outside of Meg’s mother who Meg never thinks counts, who thought that her sister was a heroine, not a supporting character.