Carol Berg August 21st, 2006
In the midst of finishing the Flesh and Spirit sequel by a totally impossible deadline, I am developing a workshop called â€œWriting Characters That Liveâ€ for the Surrey Writers Conference in October. And, of course, as I develop a new workshop, I rummage through other presentations Iâ€™ve done in search of â€œgood bits.â€ So, I was reading the notes for my â€œJoys and Pitfalls of Revision Workshop,â€ 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
- What do you know about the character now that you didnâ€™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.
- Trace that characterâ€™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 characterâ€™s actions?
- 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 villainâ€™s development.
- Have the characterâ€™s actions had consequences you did not foresee? Do those consequences need to be made explicit, â€œcounter-programmedâ€, or explained away?
- Have you considered all alternatives to the choices that your characters make, especially to those that trigger major plot twists? Donâ€™t let readers accuse you of the â€œdumb plotâ€ where one word in the right ear or one sensible choice will avoid all the trouble.
- 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.
- Do your villains have redeeming qualities and clear motivations along with everyone else?
For each minor character (those that actually participate in the story)
- Name one individual characteristic of each of your minor characters. Are these characteristics clichÃ©d? Stereotypical? The fat innkeeper. The gay sidekick. The sadistic slavemaster. If so, think of something fresher.
- Write down something this minor character would do off screen.
- Could this character be useful in some scene other than the ones youâ€™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 orâ€¦)?