Revising characters

August 21st, 2006

In the midst of finishing the Flesh and Spirit sequel by a totally impossible deadline, I am developing a workshop called “Writing Characters That Live” for the Surrey Writers Conference in October. And, of course, as I develop a new workshop, I rummage through other presentations I’ve done in search of “good bits.” So, I was reading the notes for my “Joys and Pitfalls of Revision Workshop,” and these bits fell out:

Now that you have completed a draft of your story, look at your lineup of characters, and ask yourself some questions.

For each major and secondary character

  1. What do you know about the character now that you didn’t know in the beginning? Allergic to water, deeply averse to killing, hankers after men with big feet? Often we add such details to explain or enrich some plot element. You can feed these new learnings into the earlier scenes so that the detail will be grounded and not seem like just a convenience (even though it was.) Your characters will be richer.
  2. Trace that character’s actions through the story. Are his motivations clear and consistent with his personality? Or intentionally inconsistent? Have you given the reader enough evidence to support your character’s actions?
  3. How has that person changed or grown throughout the book? Is that what you intended or have you added a dimension to the story that might change the plot or create some kind of imbalance? For example, you began the book as a light-hearted romp, and the villain took a sadistic turn. Perhaps you need to rethink the opening or the villain’s development.
  4. Have the character’s actions had consequences you did not foresee? Do those consequences need to be made explicit, “counter-programmed”, or explained away?
  5. Have you considered all alternatives to the choices that your characters make, especially to those that trigger major plot twists? Don’t let readers accuse you of the “dumb plot” where one word in the right ear or one sensible choice will avoid all the trouble.
  6. Are your characters distinguishable from each other? I once wrote three female secondary characters and realized they came out exactly the same. I went back and considered their roles, decided what kind of personality would fit the person with this role, and came out with three distinctive individuals.
  7. Do your villains have redeeming qualities and clear motivations along with everyone else?

For each minor character (those that actually participate in the story)

    1. Name one individual characteristic of each of your minor characters. Are these characteristics clichéd? Stereotypical? The fat innkeeper. The gay sidekick. The sadistic slavemaster. If so, think of something fresher.
    2. Write down something this minor character would do off screen.
    3. Could this character be useful in some scene other than the ones you’ve put her in? Even people in great cities run across the same people from time to time. Make your world feel real.

    Character development is one of the richest areas for revision improvement. Anyone have more ways to take a second look (or third or…)?

    4 Responses to “Revising characters”

    1. David Louis Edelmanon 22 Aug 2006 at 9:04 am

      This is excellent, Carol. One of the little things I like to do is to try to look at every character and imagine, oh so briefly, that that person is the main character in the book. What would the book be like if you told it from that character’s point of view? How would that change the emphasis of the story? I’ve found it’s a pretty good way of getting inside a minor character’s head.

    2. Kathryn Hindson 22 Aug 2006 at 10:28 am

      Thanks for this fantastic list; I’m printing out a copy so that I can refer to it again and again!

    3. Sherwood Smithon 22 Aug 2006 at 12:22 pm

      This is a good list. To which I’d add, emphasizing the cliche aspect of sidekicks: are they reacting like typical spear carriers? In other words, is everybody laughing uproariously at something the author wants us to take as wit from the protagonist? Are they all exhibiting the same expression of surprise when Heroine takes out her Magic Dingus? Different reactions–unexpected ones–underlines that they, too, have their own stories, even if, as George Elliott says, their lives “run in channels which have no great name on the earth.”

    4. LauraJMixonon 25 Aug 2006 at 11:22 am

      I like your advice. I think it’s particularly important to give attention to your minor characters and your villian/ antagonist.

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