Monday, December 13, 2010

Revision: Sharpening Characters

Revision: Sharpening Characters

sharpen charOn my never-ending quest to revise Steam Palace, I’ve come across a particular set of feedback across most reviewers:

  1. I don’t care (enough) about your character(s)
  2. I don’t understand your character(s)

So lately I’ve been researching the issue. It seems like it comes down to two separate problems:

  1. Overall, I’m not showing my characters’ goals and motivations clearly, and/or readers don’t relate.
  2. In specific scenes, not providing insight into my characters’ mindset.

So how do I address these issues? The first thing is to make my character’s motivations and goals not only clearer, but much stronger. As I write, I always have a sense of what each character is after. A lot of us want to start with “ordinary” characters who are facing somewhat “ordinary” problems. The problem come when we send these characters on an adventure. Why? What stops them from just going back home? Why do they continue to press through even when things get tough or even impossible? Why don’t they fold like a house of cards?

The fact is that they are anything but ordinary. Characters are driven. They are the people we see in real life and say, “man, I wish I could be that guy.” “Isn’t she awesome?” Or, alternately, “I wish someone would run over that dude.” Characters are Heroes, they are larger-than-life. They are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

So how does this apply to character revision? Should I give my character laser eyes and shoot him into space? No. But there are a couple things to consider.

  1. What are the Stakes? Are they big enough? What happens if your character loses?
  2. Can you increase the stakes? Make them more personal? What would your character die for? Is this the most important thing the character has ever wanted ever?
  3. Are your characters’ goals well-defined? Do they know what they want? Do you? Is what they want worth dying over?
  4. Can the reader relate to the character’s needs? Are they good, solid goals?
  5. Does the character have a life outside of the story that the reader can relate to?
  6. Do other characters care about your character? Does your character care about the other characters? Let’s feel the love.

Note that this applies both to Heroes and Villains, except for #6 where you should replace ‘care about’ with ‘hate’.

Now this doesn’t address of connecting with characters on a page-by-page basis. Here are some things I’m going to work through:

  1. Keep the characters’ goals and opposition up-front on every page. Think of a kid trying to get to a bowl of candy. They have eyes for nothing else. You character wants something in every situation, and struggles to achieve that goal. It’s either the candy or a diaper-wetting tantrum (or however your character handles setbacks). And remember, the goal is never, “learn the backstory.”
  2. Filter the scene through the POV character. If there’s nothing evocative about something in the scene, don’t mention it. React. Emote. Why does ever single word on each page matter?
  3. Dialogue is better than monologue. Especially if two or more characters are speaking at cross-purposes. Express inner dialogue when you can, but don’t overdo it.

How do you get your readers to connect with your characters?

PS. On the image above, let me suggest an edit. The balloon should read, “A conflicted Disney Princess on every page.” Then they won’t just teach reading comprehension, but maybe writing skills as well.


  1. I stumbled on your blog some time during NaNo and just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading your posts since, and this post especially.

    Your list of questions sounds great. I think I need to work through it with my characters and make sure they have an answer for each of them!

  2. Very helpful insights Andrew. I love your writing processes. YOu always make a project of learning something new, and I consistently benefit from your research. And the way you work things out.

    I think my characters are emotive (love that word), and I "show" their motivations through action and dialogue. Mostly dialogue. What seems to be my problem is voice. And instilling progress in a plot that is more of a literary journey than action.

    Plot is my weakness.

    A great post.


  3. Good thoughts. I have found I've had the same trouble with my characters lately. I might have to save this post so I can refer to it while I'm editing.

  4. Characters make the story, IMHO. Good characters can carry a lame plot, but a great plot with cardboard characters rarely works. Good suggestions.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. I don't know. My characters are real people in a fictional situation. I cannot make them larger than life, cuz their lives SUCK. I like this post, it gives me some idea where to take things. Some things just can't apply to my novel. My readers have really liked what I've put down so we'll see. Your process is helping me!

  6. Larger-than-life doesn't mean better-than-life. It could mean worse. We put our characters through a lot of "what-if" scenarios. For instance, in real life, sometimes when we face challenges, we walk away. We give up. We take our ball and go home. But if fictional characters try that, then somehow events change to force them back on the path. They can resist but change is inevitable. We want to read about characters facing challenges whether they want to or not.
    No matter what they do and how they react, the challenges and stakes keep growing until they are forced to react. They become larger-than-life because they have to.
    But people in Real Life just...don't. Real people don't face challenges, even when they have to. They don't change. It would suck to read, which is why we write fiction (see The Invention of Lying).

    A great example of this is on an episode of The Simpsons when Homer thinks he has 12 hours to live. He runs through everything on his bucket list, claims that he wishes he lived his life differently, and wishes he could change.
    Then he finds out he'll live, and instead of having an "It's a Wonderful Life" moment, he parks in front of the TV and drinks beer. Although a fictional program, that's what real life is like. People have grand dreams and ideas but never do anything about it. In this example Homer Simpson is larger-than-life but he's still ultimately human and almost a real person.

  7. Sigh... I have that book in my house. In fact, while I read your blog, one of my daughters walked buy and yelled "PRINCESSES!"
    I have heard my mc of my first book is unrelatable and comes across as whiney and selfish. Of course, she's in throws of post partum depression, something I imagined my demographic would relate to. But no agents.
    In my 2nd book, I really paid attention to the stakes, public and private. I've had a good beta response, but just started querying. *crosses fingers*

  8. Yup, I know from personal experience that someone with PPD can come across a bit negatively. The trick is to really get deep into her psyche and cast PPD as an enemy that she's fighting. Show what she really wants and is fighting for. Also show how she was before PPD and why we should care about her now.
    Good luck with the querying!

  9. This is awesome advice. Seriously. PPD is the enemy and not just her thought process, but an invasion, a violation. Thank you, seriously.


Thank you for your contribution to this discussion.