Characters don’t always come out right on the first try, or even the second. Author Christina Consolino tells us a little about her experience with getting the characters right in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Rewrite the Stars.
Have you ever wanted to do something over? Maybe you made a bad decision and wished for another opportunity to make a change, do something a little different. When people read the title of my novel, Rewrite the Stars, they often think of do-overs and second chances. The big idea of this novel, though, isn’t so much about getting that opportunity to do one thing over; it’s about looking inside yourself, making significant changes, and moving forward on a new and different—hopefully more positive and fruitful—trajectory in life.
So how did that idea come about? It took time to get there, honestly, as in over six years! The story originally began as the tale of a thirty-something couple, Sadie and Theo, who struggled with the ever-worsening symptoms of Theo’s ALS diagnosis. Because I have a doctorate in physiology (concentrating in skeletal muscle), I understood the disease, which meant the writing, while time-consuming, didn’t require many mental hurdles. In that version of the story, Sadie met a man, and her guilt over her attraction took up much of the space in the novel. The book had a different title, After We’ve Fallen, and because titles guide my writing—much like the North Star—the story revolved around all aspects of falling: falling in love, falling physically (which of course can happen when someone has ALS), falling out of love. But after much reflection spurred on by a writer’s conference, I recognized After We’ve Fallen was flawed. Deeply flawed.
How so? Well, if you’re anything like me, you like to read about strong, purposeful characters who lead by example, make active choices, and don’t just “let life happen” to them. But with a title like After We’ve Fallen piloting me and an action—falling—that implies the possibility of another person causing it, I’d been writing passive characters, more reactive than proactive. I needed to make some major changes. I had to, in effect, rewrite the novel.
So I asked myself: What do I want my characters to do, what circumstances can give rise to more active choices, and how can I give them agency over their situations? The new love interest stayed in the book because romantic elements in any genre appeal to me, but I looked at other aspects of the novel, namely the family situation and the health issue. In short order, a happily married couple dealing with the repercussions of ALS morphed into a couple on the verge of divorce struggling with the effects of PTSD on their family. Once I made that change in my head, changes on the pages followed, and I began to build a Sadie who relied less on other people and more on herself to find what she wanted out of life, to discover what made her happy. She no longer questioned what happened after she’d fallen or why she’d fallen in the first place. Instead of pure guilt over that attraction to a new man—after all, the marriage had ended long before we meet Sadie and Theo—Sadie doubted her ability to love again and feared the shift in family dynamics that might ensue with the addition of another person in her life. Now, she wanted to know what would happen if she took the active step to avoid the fall.
Yet any writer knows that revision, while fun, isn’t easy, and often, things crop up that we aren’t expecting. As I went about revising Sadie’s story, Theo stood up and yelled, “What about my voice? Don’t I get a say in this story?” And he was right; his story was just as much a part of their world, and he deserved to tell his side. On my next pass, I contemplated how to bring Theo’s voice forward as another POV character. I researched articles, read books, and reached out to subject matter experts to authenticate how Theo might react and think when mired in PTSD. I dug deep into my own psyche and struggle with mild depression and imagined not only ordinary, daily stresses that might push him to a perceived brink—the clang of silverware, the stare of a stranger, the popping of corn—but also larger, life changing issues—a divorce, a potential new job, a new love interest for the woman he loves—that would affect what he said and did. He reacts to life differently than Sadie does, but over the course of the book, both learn their reactions make all the difference and only they are responsible for their happiness.
As the new pages came together, I also realized I wanted to write a hopeful story. Getting away from falling and more into rewriting, I wanted my characters to stumble, right themselves, and get back up again, moving forward with intention and a new outlook on life. And part of that entailed making sure to include compassion with themselves and with others, especially when it came to PTSD. In the book, Sadie acknowledges that PTSD can be tricky: she wasn’t always sure what she was dealing with when it came to Theo’s diagnosis, and its unpredictability, especially with young children in the house, proved difficult for her to reconcile. But with the right support—caring family, effective therapists, proper information—and time as well as the earnest desire to heal on the part of Theo, these characters overcome their challenges.
Does life turn out the way Sadie and Theo both expect? Did the story turn out the way I expected? Maybe not, but the rewritten narrative provides what I intended. Strong characters with purposeful intentions. They’ve learned and grown as characters, and the experience helped me learn and grow as a writer. Being stagnant isn’t good for anyone—character or real human alike—and I challenge readers to think about their own lives and figure out how they might rewrite their own stars.