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


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