Self-editing Your Novel, Part 4: Characters


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Self-editing Your Novel, Part 1, Let it Cook talked about why our stories benefit when we take time away from them. In Part 2, Plot Structure, I dissected The Hunger Games as an example of great story structure, and made an outline for you to use as plotting reference. In Part 3, Subplot and Digression, I suggested questions to consider as you review your subplot, and rules to follow when using digression.

Now we’re getting into my favorite part of editing: the nit-picky details that give the story cohesion and readability. This will take more than one post. Polishing the details line by line, before the final proofreading, is called copy editing or sometimes line editing. I was planning to cover both character and timelines in this post, but decided to save timelines for later, in order to expound on character editing more.


In Part 2: Plot Structure, I suggested that you list each character when sketching out chapter and scene descriptions. This is where that step comes in handy. If you dutifully listed every character in your scene descriptions, you can easily skim your descriptions to find every appearance of any character.

If you didn’t add every character to your scene descriptions, you can find the character’s scenes by typing his/her name into Search & Find (available in MS Word, Open Office, and Scrivener). This method takes less time than writing characters into scene descriptions, but it’s not as accurate. If some scenes do not include a character’s name, or include an unnamed character, you might miss something.

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Make a list of your characters, both named and unnamed, leaving room for descriptions. (I like to use a lined notebook for this. Some writers use index cards, and there’s an area for character sketching in Scrivener.) Taking one character at a time, read through only that character’s scenes, in order, from start to finish, and jot down the description and information that the reader learns about that character from that scene Look specifically for the following.

  • Physical features and abilities. Gender, age, height, weight, hair, ethnicity, clothing, distinguishing features (tattoos, scars, freckles, etc.), strength, dexterity, flexibility, special skills. Look beyond obvious inconsistencies, like changes in eye color. Also pay attention to incongruities. Does your heroine, who has “a whisper of a frame,” take down a 200-pound thug? If so, she’ll need other-worldly abilities, some mad Krav Maga skills, or a weapon.
  • Gestures. I once edited a book in which the main character clutched her chest and doubled over in pain in pretty much every scene. By the middle of the book, I was certain the author was going to kill her off with a heart attack, but that never happened. (And this from an excellent, multi-published writer with a well-constructed story.) When I pointed out the angina recurrence, the author found some other ways to convey anxiety. Character sketching, scene by scene, after your story is written can help you avoid this kind of silliness.

I recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman.

  • Mannerisms. Your characters should have a certain way of doing things that makes them unique. It could be a routine, a nervous tic, and idle fidget, whatever.  This gives your characters individuality. Just don’t overdo it. If your character smacks his forehead with his hand once, that’s character. If he does it over and over and over again, that’s absurd. Here’s an example of a mannerism that enhances a character’s individuality, but just might be a touch overdone.
  • Personality. Is your character an optimist? Pessimist? Generally laid back? Shy? Outgoing? Quiet? Loud? Argumentative? No matter what the character actually does–and it’s usually more fun when they go against their natural tendencies (with reason)–they need baseline personalities.
  • Backstory. In what type of environment was the character born and raised? What brought him to this point? You don’t have to write it all in, but make sure that what you’ve written is all consistent with the character’s backstory.
  • Outer Want. What does the character think he wants? What does he think he’s doing all this for? That can change as the story goes along, but don’t jump around too much. Your character’s choices should be motivated by an identifiable want.
  • Inner Drive. This is mostly for main characters. What is the character’s true, deep, driving need/desire? This is the (usually) subconscious motivator for all of your character’s choices. Ideally, the obstacles in the plot should threaten this inner desire.
  • Hobbies and Preferences. Skydiving? Crochet? Jazz? Rock? Food? Politics? Religion? If a post-writing character sketch doesn’t reveal any hobbies or preferences in a main character, you need to go back and fill in that character more.
  • Dialogue. I’ll go over more about dialogue later, but for this step, consider the manner in which your characters speak. Is the dialogue true to both the current situation and that character’s backstory? If your character is a successful attorney, for example, living in Springfield, Illinois and running for president, he’ll speak like an educated politician trying to win votes. But if he was born and raised by uneducated parents in the foothills of the Appalachians, he might slip into a Kentucky dialect when he talks to an old friend from Hodgenville.

When you’ve finished with this exercise, you may be surprised to learn that, even though a character was fully fleshed out in your mind, you didn’t convey that picture to your readers. Or maybe you described a character’s hair, using the exact same words, twenty times. No worries. Just fix it before you send it out.

Cartoon elf from publicdomainpicturesdotnetCOMMENT FOR A CHANCE TO WIN FREE COPY EDITING
As my holiday gift to my readers, if you comment during the month of December 2015, I will add your name to a drawing. If you comment and also link back to my blog, I’ll put your name in twice. After December, I’ll pick a commenter at random. That commenter wins one free copy editing by me, up to 65,000 words. If you can’t use it, you can gift it to someone else (one person), but it has to be scheduled before March 2016 or the offer expires. (It can be scheduled for a later date, but I need to block out the time for it before March.)

UPDATE: This contest is closed. Winner has been notified.

2 Comments on “Self-editing Your Novel, Part 4: Characters

  1. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 5: Timeline | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

  2. Pingback: Self-editing Your Novel, Part 3: Subplot and Digression | Kathryn A. Frazier's Shevarim

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