How to Revise without Dying, Part One: “Ch-ch-Changes in Character”

As my editorial client list grows, no matter the genre of the work in question, I find myself repeating certain constructive criticisms. This leads me to believe that a lot of writers out there–myself included–tend to make the same mistakes, over and over. Particularly when it comes to the arena of characterization.

For me, this is one of the most important parts of plotting–the character driven plot twist. Whether the characters are acting in character, or changing their behaviors for a good reason (not just because the author said so) can make or break my feelings toward a story. Honestly, I can’t tell you how many TV shows I’ve stopped watching, how many books I haven’t finished, due to this issue. Plot is all well and good, but I’m one of those readers who falls for a person (even a fictional one) over a plot.

***Disclaimer: this is just one reader/editor/agent’s opinion, of course. Everyone has a different beef–or beeves, if you will–with different writerly issues. Character bending just happens to be one of my top, personal “deal breakers.”***

I can’t seem to help myself, when characters start to go off track, losing control of the story (often to a higher power, like Deus Ex Machina) or acting in ways that have no other explanation but “this is how the story goes,” I find myself filled to the brim with a great and fiery rage. Just ask my husband how annoying it was, watching me watch any show where characters randomly change personalities. As he will tell you, there is at least a 400% household increase in yelling and throwing of random objects. (Usually, I only do this when a show I like gets cancelled, or a book series ends too soon.)

The keyword here, of course, is RANDOMLY. Also known as, pointlessly, or without reasonable explanation. Characters can (and should) change. But they should do so the same way people do. With great difficulty, lots of personal effort, and/or years of expensive therapy.

So. How can you prevent your characters from going the way of Marcus Brody or Jennifer from the Back to the Future movies? (Though, that one can probably be blamed on Elisabeth Shue, as usual.) Simple. You START every story with an interesting–but not necessarily lovable/likable–main character, who is a) genuinely scared of something that is genuinely scary, and b) motivated by something that is 100% PERSONAL. Not driven by a vague sense of duty, or pushed along by the whims of chance, but motivated by a deep belief that your character holds truer than anything else in the world.

VIP: That core belief doesn’t need to be true, but it does need to be SIMPLE. (Such as: “I’m someone special.” Or, “I’m nobody special.” Or, “This is my fault.”)

Then, to keep that character (or multiple characters) from going off the rails, you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How can I use action to show more about each character’s personalities, motives and goals?
  2. How can I most simply and effectively expose (using hands-on action involving my main character) the antagonist’s motives?
  3. Are there any characters in this book that only serve a single purpose? (i.e. straw man or cardboard cutout)
  4. Is every single character both memorable and important to the MC’s journey?
  5. Can any two forgettable characters be combined into one memorable one? (Parents, mentors, enemies, friends, etc.)
  6. How many times in this story do I cop out of letting my character do the work? Ex: Do I use any of the following:
    1. “Chance” meetings between characters (i.e. running into people at very convenient times, either literally or figuratively)
    2. Interruptions which happen at oddly convenient times
    3. People answering questions that aren’t actually being asked—or that people would never answer honestly in real life? (i.e. “Why’d you do it, Jimmy?” Jimmy: “Because I was dead broke, see? The bank done repossessed my mama’s house. I had to kill him and take his money, Barbara. I just had no other choice!” Barbara: “B-but Jimmy, I was only asking you why you took the pie out of the oven before the timer went off?” Jimmy: “Oh.”)
  7. How can I replace those “shady” storytelling tactics with something fresh and unexpected?
  8. How can I use body language, instead of dialogue tags, to show and not tell how my characters are feeling/what they’re thinking?
  9. What wrong conclusions are my characters jumping to?
  10. What right conclusions are my characters jumping to, without evidentiary support? (This is actually a worse storytelling sin than jumping to the wrong conclusion.)
  11. How many important plot points currently center on Deus ex Machina? (i.e. a force of authority swooping down to act on my characters, instead of my characters acting for themselves)
  12. How can I most simply and directly replace those shady storytelling and DEM scenes with my characters “getting it done” or even “mucking it up” on their own?
  13. Look at this from another side: the “other” side. At what point in the story do the villains target the heroes? When does the initial “Oh, it’s on like Donkey Kong” moment happen?
  14. How can I replace outside involvement in these pivotal plot points with “closer to home” conflict?
  15. How can the answers come from the characters themselves, instead of the all-knowing author?
  16. Finally: WHO are you writing this story for? (YA, NA, Adult audience?) How can you USE your characters to connect with the reader, and make that reader feel like THEY have the power to change, the same way your character did? (This one is super complex and meta, I admit. But if you can crack the answer, you have yourself a guaranteed life-altering book.)

What do you think, readers? Have I missed anything? What really drives you beefy, when it comes to character development in a book or show? Do share, in the comment box below.