My novel takes place over generations, with storylines spaced thirty years apart. If you've been following my revision adventures for a while, you'll know that I wrote the first two drafts in the order the chapters appear, with the stories interlocked, but for the last big rewrite, I took it one storyline at a time. For various reasons, I worked on the chronologically last story first, then moved backwards through the generations.
Now that I'm making another pass through the manuscript, I'm considering the stories in the more logical direction of earliest to latest. One of the most important things I'm doing is fixing up places where the text of later storylines is inconsistent with what now occurs in the characters' past. There aren't a huge number of these issues because I did have so much planned out in advance and made a million notes to handle the complex structure, but some errors did get introduced. For the most part, these problems are simple to fix with minor edits.
Something I did not anticipate, though, was that I was going to make some pretty major personality changes, even beyond what I planned, to the earliest narrator and his wife. These are great changes and strengthen that storyline (and therefore the whole novel) in a big way. But now I'm looking at the second storyline, which I wrote with a very clear idea of those characters as the sixty-something parents of the middle narrator, and it doesn't quite match up.
It's subtle, though. I'm not finding it unbelievable that these are the same people thirty years on. For one thing, their portrayals are colored by the perspective of their adult son, who has strong feelings about his mother and father and the way he was raised. And their roles in the middle storyline are limited to their interactions with the narrator, which are very different from the interactions they have with each other in the earliest story. So it makes sense that they don't come off quite the same way, and I'm trying to keep that in mind as I tweak the things they do and say for more consistency with their earlier selves.
But the question I keep running into, which is becoming more of a philosophical issue than a writing problem, is just how much the passage of thirty years of adulthood changes a person. I'm sure the answer is that it varies by individual and circumstance, and also that some aspects of anyone's personality are more fixed than other parts. My experience of people (both observing and being one) is that we mostly don't think of ourselves as changing very much past a certain age, though the people we know may not always agree with that self-assessment.
To bring this back to my revision: As I go along, I'm getting more confident about reconciling the different-age versions of my characters, but this has been a tricky thing to deal with. Fortunately, some of the age transitions are from babies or young children to adults, and with these I have less concern about keeping the personalities consistent. In fact, with the kids it's almost the opposite: I worry that some of the childhood behavior lines up too neatly with the adult lives and may be corny.
Add this all to the long list of reasons this is a ridiculously complicated novel to be writing. I can only hope that in thirty years I'm going to look back and laugh about it.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Kathy Crowley of Beyond the Margins shares what she learned in a writing class about Secrets and Lies: "For each piece of the secret, a different version of things can be imagined. And having these pieces spread among characters allows them to figure out different things at different times, making it easier for the writer to maintain tension throughout."