Recycling (Literary, not Literal)

I’ve mentioned Imperial Secrets a few times before—it was a writing “game” I was part of for years and years. It was my first opportunity to spend long periods of time (and lots of words) with the same characters. I also wrote with some fantastic creators, a few of whom are published authors now. We created the world as we wrote our stories. It didn’t always make sense—the geographer in me cringed at some of the terrain juxtapositions, and the historian in me always wanted the background to be more coherent. (Weaving disparate chunks into a coherent history was one of my major projects in support of the game.)

I have almost everything I wrote for Imperial Secrets. The question is figuring out what to do with it. While my main characters are my own, as are many supporting players, there are characters in the stories that belong to others. All of the characters belong to the world. How can I remove them from what made them?

Recycling. That’s how. It’s work, though, distinct from simple re-use. Recycling a character (or a setting or a plot) involves figuring out what lies at its core. You don’t want to melt the character down completely—you might a well start from scratch at that point—you want to get it soft around the edges so you can re-mold it to a new purpose. What makes the character worth keeping? What’s compelling?

One of my unfinished novels involves a recycling of Leor Naechtweard, a character who, in Imperial Secrets, started as a noblewoman’s guard and eventually rose to something between fame and infamy as a bloodthirsty shape-shifting duke. Leor’s exploits (and the stories I dragged other players into) had him defeating demons and using a civil war to seize political power. He was also entangled with a different demoness who started as his co-guard. Leor was over the top, a character who fits a high fantasy framework that I had, by my mid-20s, abandoned. The involvement with other characters—often started because I wanted to write with their authors rather than any organic cause—made him messy to extract from L’Isle (the core setting for Imperial Secrets).

I have something like 600 single-spaced pages of Leor’s posts. To get anything out of them, I had to start stripping away external things. The first obvious thing to go was the demon sword. I’d had fun with it, but it did not fit the character’s arc at all. The political stuff could all go, too, because its origins were in Imperial Secrets promotion system. The love interest went by the wayside because I couldn’t possibly imagine replacing her author (who had all sorts of technical issues but was a fantastic storyteller).

What was left? Leor had a few key characteristics. He was ruthless but not vindictive (if I were hanging a D&D alignment on him, he’d be lawful evil). That ruthlessness went hand in hand with a nearly feral outlook. Imperial Secrets Leor was closely connected to wolves, both physically and mystically. Recycled Leor would have to develop some similar kind of connection. There were a few bits of the mystical backstory that were entirely mine and did not depend on the Imperial Secrets world—the most prominent were the Three Daughters of the Moon, a triple oracle that would appear to Leor in visions.

I eventually spun the outline for a novel out of those characteristics. I built up a shell of a world around them and wrote about three chapters before grad school ate my capacity to sustain nonacademic projects. The character translated beautifully to a low-fantasy setting of isolated wilderness villages and dangerous spirit-pacts. I might go back there some day.

I’m undergoing the same process with one of my other characters right now for the project I was supposed to launch three weeks ago. It’s an interesting process. There’s nothing like going through ten-year old work to make you grimace at your tastes and linguistic stumbles. There were some good moments, too, even if the character often behaved like an abstraction rather than a person. Trying to figure out what to “keep” has become more like trying to figure out what to “take.” Like Leor, this character (Hallas) had intimate ties to the Imperial Secrets setting. The character was concocted at an early moment in the game’s history when we had an overwhelming majority of evil characters and we felt we needed a white knight. So…I created a white knight who would, in fact, literally lead an order called the White Knights. (Those were another player’s creation, but the founding character had become a vampire. It’s complicated.) The stuff I’m working on now is high fantasy, but it’s much more nuanced than Imperial Secrets was at that age. I’m trying to keep only the best stuff.

Next question: is this even worth it? Why create new versions of old characters rather than concocting ones who will wholly fit a new project? It’s a valid concern. For Leor, but more particularly for Hallas, I feel like their stories weren’t done. There’s more to tell. Hallas, canonically, is dead. I martyred him to help end some metaplot stuff as Imperial Secrets was on its last legs. He was just getting interesting, though. I spent a lot of Imperial Secrets using him as a paladin who, while not lawful stupid, was nearly saintly in his piety and purity. On his penultimate story arc, he ran into some things that had the potential to complicate him. That’s what I want to explore going forward. What does a somewhat more realistic version of Hallas look like? How does he react to moral grey areas?

There’s another concern—is this “original?” Creatives tend to fetishize originality and, more often, raw novelty. We want to make something new. Recycled characters aren’t new. But we re-use ideas all the time. Composers do it constantly. (I did it occasionally as a composer; the tone row I used loosely in my master’s thesis was one that I’d first made for part of my undergraduate honors project.) Visual artists revisit the same subjects over and over again. I don’t feel bad about recycling old ideas…as long as I’m actually breaking them down and building them into something that fits.

Recycling literal waste takes energy. Artistic recycling—like any art-making—does, too.

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