Character Revision: 8 Ways to Jumpstart a Make Over
You have a first draft, but you realize that your character needs work. How do you retrofit a character when you revise?
I don’t think of a personality transplant. Instead, I try to add to and enrich a character. Here are 8 suggestions on how to revise your novel’s character.
- Change the name. The apocryphal story is that Gone with the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara was named Pansy in the first draft. Sometimes a simple name change will resonate throughout a text.
- Change the gender. Yes, a basketball player can become a female and a cheerleader can become a male. Sometimes this change will create a unique character with lots of nuances as they work against gender stereotypes.
- Give the character a more interesting job/role/activity. In my Creative Writing for Children class, one common problem was that students concentrated on developing the character relationships to the exclusion of anything else. They did a good job of laying out the emotional conflicts of the story. But the characters were boring because they weren’t DOING anything. For example, one YA story had a young man who was being bullied by football players. When I suggested that the main character become the sole male on the cheerleader squad, the story took on a vibrant tone. The character had something to DO, while the relationships were happening. Another student had a family in the throes of divorce and step-parents became an issue. When she gave the main character a goal of winning a title showing horses, the story became concrete and believable. The horse story became the backdrop and the mirror for the family story.
- Create internal conflicts. What does your character want or feel? What is the opposite of that? Can your character want both things at the same time? Depending on your mss’ length, find several specific spots where you can add this type of conflict. For example, one of my current characters is bathing at a lake and takes mud and smears on himself. Then he gazes at himself in the still waters. He’s ashamed of who he is and wants to become someone greater–which is in direct opposition to his usual pride in himself.
- Create zig-zags in the emotional pacing. If I look at the first 100 lines of Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty,
I find these emotional zig-zags: surprise, disgust, fear, argue with Mom, defiant, sarcastic, misery at heat, annoyed, thinks of father, mother sighs, rejected, ignored, longing, stranded, misunderstood, lonely, annoyed, bored, satisfaction, hope.
That is, in the margins of the book, I noted what emotions the main character was feeling. Many authors make the mistake of letting the character feel one overriding emotions. For example, anxiety that their father is sick. Most people, though, feel a much wider range of emotions and your characters will be more fully developed, if you give them a wide range, too. When I did this exercise for one of my mss, I found that I had about the same number of emotions in 100 lines, but not the same depth of emotions. Bray?s book had bigger zigs and zags, more variation and deeper variation. Better emotional pacing.
- Give your character larger-than-life qualities. What would your character never say or do? Of course, they MUST say or do this very thing. And do it with memorable lines. One of my characters knows his place in his world and it’s a humble place. So, when he says he’d be Emperor some day, it enlarges his characterization.
- Slow down. Big emotions, big scenes, big thoughts–these all require space to develop. Give your characters several pages (and lots of emotional zig-zags) to properly express the development of these Big things. The climax scenes should take up more space than any other scene in your story. Give blow-by-blow accounts of what is happening. Let us feel the emotional tensions as fortunes swing wildly.
- Raise personal stakes. What’s at risk in the story for your character? What would make the conflicts mean more? What could raise stakes to the highest plane? This is a place where you write down 20 things and throw them out. Write down 20 more things and you might finally be past the cliches and have something worth keeping. Dig deeper to understand what really motivates this character. Why do they care about the outcome of the story? How can you make the outcome matter even more? Put more at risk. Give the character an unanticipated loss. Extend the problem to a different front, from public to personal, or vice versa. Kill off a close ally. Give the character a close call, a mini-disaster, a preliminary loss. Take away a physical asset. Undermine the character?s faith. Or the faith of a supporting character. Set a clock ticking?time is running out. In short?push characters to the edge. Other suggestions?
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