As mentioned in earlier posts, my current work-in-progress is a novella focused on a character called Antyllus, a young man who grows up in a brothel but is driven by ambition and innate talent to become a star in the up-and-coming performance art of pantomime (not the kind with the horses and Widow Twankey, but the ancient precursor to the ballet in which a story is told through dance and gesture).
Antyllus is a character previously known from Gaius and Achilles as Gaius’ difficult and neurotic ex-boyfriend, who had been making his life a drama-filled misery in the period immediately prior to the start of the novel. This current story takes place a couple of years before that.
One challenge I’ve been encountering about developing the backstory of a secondary character is that of throwaway references about them and their circumstances that you made in the original work that you now find just don’t fit or make much sense when you reconstruct their story or character in more detail.
For example, in Gaius and Achilles, I mention that Antyllus’ original patron freed him and let him go his own way “having moved on to another pet project”. It sounds simple and painless because, when I wrote that, I was just sketching the background of Antyllus’ story for the purposes of his role in the current plot. I hadn’t any plans to write more about him and some brief explanation was needed for why he was with Gaius if he had been another man’s protege; the details weren’t important. Now that I am exploring Antyllus’ relationship to his original patron, the man who saved him from life as a brothel slave and gave him the chance to train as a dancer, the story of what went on between them is starting to look rather more complex and conflicted.
Should I be bound by my earlier statement to make events transpire just as I had so airily postdicted (new word), or should I be shamelessly guilty of inconsistency between books in the interests of being true to the current story?
As you might guess, I’m favouring the latter approach. If I needed an excuse, I might point out that Antyllus’ function in Gaius and Achilles was to be part of Gaius’ story. We were focused on the parts of his life that touched on Gaius’ and the rest was background shading. Gaius did not know Antyllus at the time of the current work-in-progress so his own understanding of that period of Antyllus’ life might be somewhat hazy.
The process has parallels with real life; if you have a slight acquaintance with an old friend of a friend, you know what the friend has told you about them, and your perception of them is skewed by how they relate to your friend. If, later on, you come to know them well yourself, you discover that, while your friend told you no untruth about them, the full story is more complicated and parts of it might start to wear a very different aspect.
Antyllus in Gaius and Achilles is there largely to be a neurotic and tantrumy pain in the arse. Obviously, he can’t now be all sweetness and light and the epitome of well-balanced, but I’m finding that he is not turning out as tempestuous or self-destructive as I expected in this story, because his circumstances are so different. In Gaius and Achilles, he is a very damaged young man but he by then he is in a relatively safe and secure position. He can afford to let the damage show a little, to process his trauma. In the current story, he is fighting his way free of the circumstances of his trauma, thus he actually appears less obviously damaged sometimes, because he is in survival mode.
At various stages of our life we may present very different aspects of ourselves to different people and fictional characters are no otherwise. It seems a certain willingness to be flexible and seemingly inconsistent at times may be key when you have the same characters popping up in different stories.
I would be intrigued to know whether other writers with re-occurring characters have faced such questions and if so how they addressed them?