After several weeks, I’m finally going to revisit the editing checklist. Remember that? I posted it back in October. It’s a long inclusive list, and I haven’t even touched mechanics and grammar yet. To see the full editing checklist, click here.
Moving right along, it looks like next on the list is editing characters. You might notice after your first draft that some or many of your characters just don’t work. They may need tweaking or to be cut entirely.
Remember, these are all tips on how to go back and edit existing characters, not how to create them from scratch. That’s for a later post.
Make Sure They Have Motivation
Poor motivation, or none whatsoever, is often the culprit if you’re character is falling flat. Goals, dreams, wants, desires drive every action your characters make. Your characters’ motivation can be simple or complex, as long as it’s the driving factor.
Examples of Character Motivation
I chose this movie because A. I just watched it and B. there are so many characters with motivations that clash and cross I just had to use it.
Achilles: To be remembered forever and ever and ever and ever
Paris: To be with Helen
Helen: To be with Paris
Hector: You know what, I’m just going to use his own words: Honor the Gods, love his woman, defend his county.
Agamemnon: Take over Troy
Menelaus: Get his wife back from the Trojans and regain his honor.
Odysseus: Not die and go home to his wife
Patroclus: To fight
So how do all of these varying motivations come together? Well, they weren’t randomly selected. The movie differs from The Iliad slightly, and for this example, I’m using the film.
Agamemnon wants to take over Troy and finds an excuse to attack the city when his brother Menelaus comes to him asking him to fight with him so he can get his wife back from the Trojans and regain his honor. Helen left her husband to be with Paris who sneaks her into Troy so they can be together. Agamemnon is going to have a hard time taking the city because it is protected by high walls and Hector, the prince of Troy and the city’s mightiest warrior. Of course we know his motivation: defend, honor, love wife, etc. To insure victory, Agamemnon hires Achilles, the supposed greatest warrior of all time, to fight for him. Achilles, though he hates Agamemnon, agrees to fight because he knows anyone who fights at this battle is going to be remembered forever and ever and ever. He really doesn’t have a personal stake in the battle, which is why towards the end he decides to go home, taking his fleet with him; however, his cousin (in the book he’s just a friend) Patroclus wants to fight, so he steals Achilles’ armor and fights the Trojans. He’s slaughtered by Hector who thinks he is Achilles. Enraged by his cousin’s death, Achilles returns to the battle and kills Hector. Greek victory, right? Wrong. There are still those high walls. They aren’t simply going to crumble just because Troy lost its prince. Odysseus knows that they can’t take the city, and they will all die trying. He does not want to die. He wants to go home to his wife, so he comes up with the plan to turn the ships into a Trojan horse so they can invade the city. The rest is history.
Edit for Function
Your character’s function is to serve the plot. When you designed your main character, hopefully you didn’t just pick random traits. Design a character with your plot in mind. Chances are, when you’re planning your story you had some idea of what the plot would be or at least what would happen. Give your character attributes (strengths, weaknesses, fears) that will aid your plot.
Example: Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. This would be a pointless fear–distracting from the plot even–if it wasn’t for the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where, in order to find the Ark, he must pass thousands of snakes in the Well of Souls. His fear is not pointless or random. It was a character trait designed to give him something to overcome. It also happens to make him more relatable and believable.
Edit for Consistency
Inconsistencies are very distracting. Make sure your character is consistent throughout the entire book.
name: This is very important. Readers are ruthless when they find mistakes, don’t make a mispelled name one of them. First things first, decide on a spelling and keep a sheet where you list your characters’ names alphabetically. If you’re not sure how you spelled a name in chapter one, refer to your sheet. If you change the spelling of a name, or the name entirely, simply use the search and replace feature to correct it.
physical appearance: I’ve read books where a character has green eyes in one chapter and then brown in another. It doesn’t seem hard to keep these facts straight. Again, instead of planning your characters as you go, plan them beforehand. Even if you never describe the color of your characters’ eyes or hair, decide what they are just in case you do. Draw a picture, cut out clips from magazines, or write out a description. Refer to it whenever you need to describe your character in narrative.
personality: It’s not enough that your characters look consistent but that they act consistent. If your character is a pessimist, it would be character assassination for them to look on the bright side of a bad situation.
To make sure all of your characters’ attributes are consistent, create a character sketch for each one. Not a drawing per se, but a list of traits or a brief description. In this include their goals and conflicts. A character interview is a great way to get to know your character. For tips on this, see Tuesday Tip #2.
So you can see what a finished character sketch looks like, this is my character sketch for Thaolas.
Your problem might not be the characters you created, just the number. Maybe your main protagonist spends too much time in thought because you gave her no one to talk to. Perhaps there aren’t enough background characters to make your world believable.
To know for sure if a character is hurting or helping your novel, simply ask yourself , does this character enhance or distract from the main protagonist or the plot. For more detail on this, check out this post where I discuss multiple POVs.
My number one tip when it comes to characters, plan them in advance. This will cut down on edits and rewrites.
I hope you find that helpful. Please comment below. What are some helpful tips you have for keeping character traits straight?