Five Approaches to Revising Character
See part one here
By Elissa Field
Again, not all authorial characters are broken — but this post addresses the situation where characters drawn closely from the author come across as flat. Each of the following presents a possible source of the problem and how to address it.
- See-through narrator: beginner’s error? In one of my early novel attempts, I had a central female protagonist who essentially represented my entrypoint into the story. She was roughly my age, my cultural background, etc. Her story arc was dynamic, but she was the least fully-written and least empathetic character. I realized I was intentionally keeping this character thinly written, nearly transparent, as if she were a window to see through to the story. Have you ever read an editor’s list of “beginner errors”? While revising this story at Bread Loaf one summer, I was startled to find this approach on a list of errors committed by first-time novelists who are still trepidatious about claiming that right to just present the story. It’s possible a transparent-window-character really is an effective device for your story (they do exist in some successful published work), but my authorial character did not ring true. Fix? The simplest approach is to eliminate the character — no window is needed for you to ‘frame’ the story. If you resist deleting the character, this means you believe the character has a purpose in the story. Take the time to understand why you chose this perspective and own it. Don’t avoid the character; understand the tension and emotion they create, and write the character fully.
- Lay back on the couch & tell me about your childhood: another beginner’s error? Editors also report a beginner’s error of feeling a need to explain the psychology behind our character’s choices. This can be common when writing about from real life. Much of our memory may come from psychological processing of an event. But see if the flatness of your authorial character arises from too much explanation of their thoughts. Reams of psychological explanation is less intriguing than actions and emotions that reveal the same information, and can seem inauthentic or defensive. Fix? Psychological explanation is often written as a placeholder for motivation in early drafts. As the action and emotion of scenes become more full in revisions, see if you can simply delete the explanations. If these other scenes have not been written, make notes to yourself of what the psycho-babble is trying to accomplish, then envision the kind of interaction between characters that would reveal it. An entire scene might not be necessary; a single line revealing a memory might suffice. A reader will always find psychology more believable if they came to the conclusion on their own through experiencing the character, than if you explain it. Also, see 3.
- I’m a good girl/boy: I spent my whole life trying to convince my grandmother that my hair was the current style, my brother that I hadn’t packed too much on the family trip, and anyone else that I wasn’t difficult. Best thing ever was the year I realized it was okay if my hair was not my grandmother’s style, my suitcase was overpacked and I was as difficult as anyone else around me. Around the same time, I realized I was raising my characters to be as well-behaved as my family wanted me to be. If a character did something inappropriate, I caught myself reeling them in or tried to explain it away. If they had affairs or stole or were judgmental, writer-me immediately tried to take it back (or, see #2, gave psychological justification and excuses). Around the time I gave myself permission to be sassy, I read a single perfect line of writing advice: the most memorable characters are not well-behaved. Not that they’re rude, but they have opinions, they speak out and take action. Not that they’re all adulterers and murderers, but they make high-stakes mistakes, and story arises from the consequences, not excuses. Best characters would, in all hopes, make my grandmother’s eyes fly wide first in horror, then in secret glee for having done what she would not have allowed me to do. Fix? Don’t hold back. In Hood’s advice below, note how important it is that we create distance and not expect our characters to behave as we do. If you gave your character a gun, don’t apologize when it goes off — and it should. Characters should get in positions other people avoid, or say things they shouldn’t, or do the wrong thing and then another wrong thing after that. Sitting primly on the couch and keeping thoughts to themselves would rarely have kept even my elders turning the pages.
- 4. Hood’s advice #1: Continuing from part 1, in our workshop writer Ann Hood said the key is to create the resonance and fullness of story in characters based on reality. A common sign that a writer is too married to reality is when they defend a manuscipt by saying, “But that’s what really happened.” To write effectively from real life, a writer is seeking to create resonance and meaning that were not apparent in the thin reality. To do this, Hood said, “You have to establish authorial distance [between yourself and the character] to be able to see the character as acharacter.” Distance allows us to view others more clearly — from all sides, with interesting filters — than we do ourselves. The key is to create that ability to see yourself at that same distance. Fix? Hood said the key is to give the character one quality or trait that is absolutely not like yourself. Give them a tick. A quirk, an idiosyncracy. Give them an obsession. A hobby, a talent. Make them older than yourself, younger, or change their gender. Give them a profession or talent or hobby that defines their lives. It’s not a small shift — the goal is to create something in the character that is utterly unlike yourself so that you start seeing them as someone other than yourself. In the gap, you can begin to have perspective and write more fully.
- Hood #2: Saying the same thing differently, Hood referenced another author in saying that developing story arises by repeatedly asking the question, “What if…?” Each answer to the question spins details to character or setting or obstacles. For example, Hood wrote one of her novels in response to the grief of losing her daughter to a sudden illness. But what if she directed that grief into learning to knit? For a current story I am writing, a main theme is my own, but what if the character were ten years older? What if she worked in a museum tending taxidermied exhibits? What if something were stolen, so the story seems to be about the theft, not her inner struggle? Fix? Begin with a “What if” that is not true of yourself. What if… the character was a man or an older woman or an artist or just witnessed a train derailing in the middle of the night behind her father’s barn…
More revision strategies?
For a 6th example, I’ll suggest this and you are welcome to offer a solution:
- I’m just not that into me. In freelance work, I once interviewed a woman who had been an entymologist and lived in the jungle for 6 years before going back to school, studying urban planning and being appointed to public office. It was a fascinating article on how those unconnected roles represented her drive to serve. Yet she was shocked that anyone found her years in the jungle interesting. For me, that is parallel to a truth when I write a character like myself: it’s easy for me to be fascinated by a character I’m just getting to know, while falling flat to describe the character who feels like the same somebody I’m inside every day. One of the problems with writing authorial characters arises when we don’t gain Hood’s authorial distance to perceive ourselves as interesting characters. If the character most like yourself feels boring to you, perhaps this is the dilemma. Fix? The fix may mean not writing about yourself if it bores you, or perhaps Hood’s advice in 4 & 5, to gain the distance and interest to write more fully. Or, how would you suggest solving it?