revision 9-1-1 for novels: characters

Are you ready for some Revision 9-1-1? The only way to fix a problem is to…

  1. Recognize you suffer from the condition
  2. Identify solutions for recovery
  3. Follow-through with the solutions (this would be some sort of revision–either a cut, add, or change)

What I’ve done here is laid out the most common character issues I’ve seen to date. Now it’s your job to figure out how ill you are and get on the path to recovery!

Common Character Issues

hammer-head

  • Repetition of the same idea over and over again as if to make sure your reader really gets it. This might be saying a character is upset ninety different ways in the space of a few pages. Multiple symptoms lead to this diagnosis. Tags connoting the upset (e.g., shout, cried.) plus actions (stomping, slamming doors) plus thoughts. “I can’t believe this happened.” plus more thoughts. “Why me? Why me?”. Plus dialogue. “You look upset, Margie.” Now repeat eight times.
  • Solution? Identify the main idea of the scene. Now count up the number of instances the idea was conveyed through action, thoughts, dialogue, tags, etc., A bit much? CUT. LESS IS MORE. Readers are perceptive. Usually you only have to convey an idea once.

severe mood-swings

  • A character who’s depressed in one scene and suddenly winds up all happy in the next. Hmm…..a bit fishy
  • Solution? Watch for characters’ moods as they progress through the story. Are major mood shifts motivated? If not, motivate the mood-shift for the reader (or she’ll wonder when your character started taking happy pills) and tone-down one of the emotions if you’ve gone farther than you need to

important characters who are flat or cliche

  • two things I’ve noticed so far: Cliche hot boy walks on scene in chapter two. And Mama-knows-best kind of mothers. That is not to say you can’t write a hot boy or a responsible mother like Mrs. Cleaver into your book. But if either of these two characters have a thread in your plot, can you make them more interesting?
  • Solution? Make hot boy and Mrs. Cleaver as real as you can. If they’re too perfect, they smell like the cliches they are. Give all your important characters “individuality”. Shows sides of supporting characters that make them as real as your main character. Sometimes just a couple of sentences can turn Hot Boy into Interesting Boy and Mrs. Cleaver into Bree from Desperate Housewives. (okay, you don’t need to go as far as Bree, but you get the idea.)

characters gone possessed

  • when your characters do things that come out of nowhere, almost as if the writer is trying to get something to happen in the plot. (gasp!)
  • Solution? MOTIVATE YOUR CHARACTERS. Make those motivations clear to your reader. And SPIN. SPIN. SPIN. Don’t know what Spin means? I’ll post more on that later. The main idea is create circumstances, situations, or even thoughts that would logically motivate the character to do that. If you can’t get this to work, then perhaps your plot is what is messed up, not your character. Don’t force your characters into doing things they simply wouldn’t do just because you want them to.

characters gone dumb

  • when characters deliberately ignore something obvious because the writer wants to keep something secret for an extra-special surprise later.
  • Solution? Motivate your characters naivety. Explain it. OR don’t do this in general. Characters who suddenly get an IQ of zero because you want them to be in the dark a little longer isn’t being fair to your book or your readers. Keep it real. If something should be staring the character right in the face, let the character face it; perhaps how she deals with the information is unexpected. Or perhaps you find another way to hook the reader that doesn’t require your star player to go all ditzy.

characters gone MIA

  • this is when an important character only makes appearances when the writer wants to do a cool plot thingy. This character might be introduced in Chapter One and completely left out until Chapter Twenty-Five. (oh my!)
  • Solution? Watch your characters entrances and exits. If you can’t keep track, simply list which characters are in each chapter (or page) and why they’re there. If they disappear for eons, perhaps you ought to be building some scenes with them in so the cool plot thingy you have them involved in Chapter Twenty-Five will work more naturally.

backstory dump (the old “shove-ola”)

  • jamming in a bunch of stuff about the character’s life story in places that don’t have room for it. Typically happens in the first three chapters. Like when the character is in the middle of a high-speed car chase or something. It reads kind of like this. “TURN LEFT NOW!” Jason yelled to his driver. The light was green. Green like the color of Jason’s favorite fish who was back home in London where Jason wanted to be, instead of in the middle of a high-speed car chase with five cops on this tail. Oh, how Jason missed Greenie. And the pastures of his home in the country. Jason missed his bike, too. It was red with silver handlebars. “WATCH OUT FOR THE CAT!” cried Jason. The driver swerved.
  • Solution? Decide how important it is to have the backstory told right then. Is it even necessary? Can you create another scene a little bit later where your character has the “mental space” to process the backstory. Has Jason just gotten to a safe place? He’s tired from his high-speed car situation and he longs for Greenie and his bike in London? Pick the right moments for backstory. And only tell the backstory necessary to understand the present story.

digression diarrhea

  • this is when the character loses all focus and sits on the potty way too long to do nothing but espouse ideas about one particular topic that has seemingly nothing to do with the story.
  • Solution? CUT THE DIGRESSION. Or if your character is a particularly thoughtful kind of person shorten the digression to a graph. Stay out of the story too long and your reader might be doing something else in his own potty. (Starts with a V.)

writer at the wheel

  • this is when suddenly the character’s voices stop and the writer steps in to say something poetic or tries out a new metaphor or simile the character would never say himself.
  • Solution? Watch every word you put on that page. If you find yourself feeling very proud of something you’ve written, that’s a signal something could be wrong. (ha!) STOP. Ask yourself, would my characters really talk or think this way? If you have an omniscient narrator, ask yourself, would my narrator really talk or think this way? Get rid of your words and replace it with something only your character or narrator could replace it with.

dialogue diarrhea

  • when characters talk the reader to death. This could be six, seven, eight, nine full pages of back-to-back converations. Or it could simply be a conversation that covers everything from the how are you’s to the see you later’s. Like completely raw unedited dialogue.
  • Solution? If you find yourself unable to stop the talking, learn how to narrate the talking. Fast forward. Skip over. Study conversation in published books. See how it’s done. If you can only see scenes as conversations, try to break it up. Start with narration, go to live scenes with conversation, go back to narration. Throw in some thoughts. Whatever. Balance out narration with live scene. Too much yammering gets old. Too much narration gets old. Even in movies, you’ll notice there is a mix of blabbing and doing before, during, and after conversations. Dialogue and narration is a dance. As is everything else in writing a book. BALANCE.

melodrama

  • This is when you see the hot tears stream down someone’s face. The tissues come out. The character is pounding the walls and shouting for his dead mother. Basically anything from one of those after-school specials. That is not to say you can’t do a great emotional scene with fist-pounding and tear-streaming, but there is a thin line between drama and melodrama.
  • Solution? Find ways to touch on the emotion. Less is more, once again. When your characters are pushed to the brink, see if you might be doing too much to convey the intense emotion. Intense emotion does not require intense writing. You’ll find the most emotional scenes show the feeling in unique ways that totally come from the characters themselves. Sometimes tears don’t mean anything for a really sad scene. An action with meaning might be all the boo-hooing you’ll need.

What’s the big idea here?

The main idea of each of these issues is to keep your characters real and interesting. No matter how ridiculous or over the top your story is. Thoughts, actions, and dialogue should be a) motivated (logical to the reader) and b) edited so the reader can read the book without getting bored, or overly tired, emotionally irritated, etc., Also c) making your characters unique gives the illusion they’re more interesting and thus more memorable (and authentic!).

When you revise your book, I hope you’ll use these common issues as a checklist. It’s easy to fall into any one of these traps just to get your book done. Pay attention to what your characters do, say, and think. And remember: character development is only one aspect of writing a good story. There’s also plot, setting, and writing mechanics to worry about.

Read more articles in the Revision 9-1-1 series, http://www.cynthealiu.com/category/revision.

Order WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS: A CRASH COURSE

Happy revising,

Cynthea

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