So, by now you probably heard about the whole “Go Set A Watchman” debacle. I’ve heard about it, too. The things I heard relate to characters and have made me very, very sad (if the use of ‘debacle’ didn’t give that away). I haven’t read the book, because I heard about said debacle and decided that, like “The Matrix,” it was better for me to just stop while I was ahead and stay happy with the story by remaining mostly ignorant of any sequels. To this day, I can still enjoy “The Matrix” for the thought provoking movie that it was because I never watched Matrix II or Matrix III. I’m not going to talk about the actual story “Go Set A Watchman” because (1) I haven’t read it and (2) there are plenty of other people who are talking about it from whom you can learn those things (be warned, if you snoop like I did, you will learn things that will make you very sad).
But what I am qualified to talk about, thanks to approximately 29 years of writing fiction for funsies, is writing characters and plots – and how organic they are. Typically, when I sit down to write, I have Ideas. I have themes I want to explore. I have thoughts on who the major players are. By the time I finish a draft, part of that has come to life. By the time I’m on draft three, however, a LOT of things have changed. The characters have almost always changed. Who they are and what they represent has changed. That’s part of the writing process.
I’ll take my current project and use my character Chelsea as an example. Chelsea started as an insecure thirty-something woman struggling to define herself after being dumped by the guy she thought was her Twu Wuv and soon ended up in a relationship with another dude. After several iterations, however, Chelsea became an independent-minded college student who wasn’t defined by who she was dating, and, ultimately, decided to put romance with Mr. Right on hold to pursue, as Taylor Swift might say, “some bigger dreams of [hers].” (Romance lovers, do not despair – in my head canon they eventually get together in their forties, after they’ve both achieved the dreams they were chasing and are ready to be grown-ups). While the main thrust of the overall story is the same (it involves magic and people trying to take over the world) and the themes investigated haven’t changed, the Chelsea character became an extremely different person. I needed Chelsea to become a more independent minded character for plot purposes, and so she changed. Even though Draft One Chelsea is older than Current Draft Chelsea, Draft 1 Chelsea is not Future Chelsea. Chelsea is not going to get to thirty and suddenly go “oh, screw this goal I’ve spent the last ten years of my life working towards, I need to get me a man” just because an earlier version of the character believed she needed a man. Draft One Chelsea is just that – Draft One Chelsea. Chelsea changed. That happens. It’s part of writing.
“Go Set A Watchman” is an earlier draft of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” To call it a “sequel” because it was released later and shows the characters later in their lives is not really a fair description of what the book is. As writers are wont to do, Lee had some of her characters have different arcs, personalities, and traits in her original draft. For whatever reason, she decided to change some of those as she wrote her revisions, ending with the story we all read in high school. Personally, I like “To Kill A Mockingbird” – and not because of my profession, but because of the quieter moments in the novel completely unrelated to the main plot that made me think about who I want to be as a person. I’d like to think that, perhaps, these types of moments and lessons were why Lee changed her original story to the one that became a beloved American classic – why characters were changed so that her heroine could learn those lessons.
First drafts are great. They help you figure out what your story is and where it’s going – but first drafts are meant to be changed, improved upon, and then stored away in a folder on your computer called “ye who shall not see the light of day” (along with those purple prose NC17 scenes that you wrote just because). “Watchman” was a first draft. It was published as part of the “Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money” phenomenon that, unfortunately, drives our television, movie, and literature today. I’ve decided to take what I’ve learned about it for what it really is – a first draft that changed – and then be glad Lee decided to change that story into the “To Kill A Mockingbird” tale many people love.