Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Secret of Strong Characters

I’m deep in revisions, so I’ll share a little more about the process. I know a lot of authors wind up cutting huge chunks of material during revisions, especially in earlier drafts. One of my critique clients had an excellent story that, to me, started too slowly. She took several chapters to set up a situation, and we didn’t get to the main inciting incident for about 10 chapters. I suggested she cut a lot of the background and start closer to when this particular adventure started.

Here’s an excerpt of her e-mail after she got my critique:

“One of the ways I can tell how right you were is that it was NOT hard for me to begin chopping swaths out of those first ten chapters. It’s still probably not pared down as far as I’ll get it, but instead of the school yard scene, and showing the boys building their business, I did as you suggested.... So the action in chapter 5 has been moved up to chapter 2.”

I think many writers will identify with this process of cutting or trimming your opening scenes, which are often unnecessary background and set up – sometimes referred to as “throat clearing.”

I had to do this more often in my early novels. But now I seem to have a different problem. I generally wind up adding material during revisions, and cutting very little. I’m more of a plot-oriented author than a character-focused one, and over the years I’ve learned to write a tight, action-packed plot. My goal now is to make the most of my character, and that often means getting deeper into her head, sharing more of her thoughts, and adding material.

Typically I already have plenty of action. What I need is more reaction. I need to let the character think about the situation, worry, get excited, hope, plan – something that keeps the reader connected to the character, so they care about her and her plight and don’t feel like they’re just watching a bunch of stuff happen to a stranger.

Including this reaction lets us get to know the character much better. It can also increase tension, by showing what the character really wants or fears. It ups the stakes by showing us how important the situation is.

Even if your stories are more character-driven, and you think you know your character well, consider checking your work to see if you are properly showing reaction. Often I find that writers skip over this. The author knows how his character feels, and why she’s reacting that way, but doesn’t put it on the page, because it seems obvious – but it’s only obvious to the author.

Make sure you’re giving your character a chance to react, and you’re more likely to have fascinating characters, a dramatic plot, and rapt readers.

I go into more detail in my article "How to Write Vivid Scenes" in Advanced Plotting. See my critique rates and recommendations in the right-hand column or e-mail me through my website.

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