A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 2: Pinocchio Needs A Soul.
Your characters, particularly your MC, are the most important aspect of your story. If people don’t engage with them, they aren’t going to finish reading the book.
You don’t want to wait until you’re polishing the final draft to sort this out. You want to do it as early in the process as possible. Once readers are hooked into the characters, you have a solid foundation to build on.
That doesn’t mean your characters should jump through windows and have kung-fu fights (even though it might add a fresh twist to the Regency romance you’ve been working on).
What it does mean is your characters need to be more than puppets being moved from scene to scene.
Novels are such large, sprawling constructs that just making sure people are in the right place doing what you need them to be doing can take up all your mental powers. What you can end up with in your first draft is a robot going for one place to another fulfilling various functions that you’ve assigned to them.
What’s missing is a sense of why this character is doing what they’re doing. Not in an overall story sense, I mean in each individual scene. Why is this character in this place right now?
This tends to be particularly true of earlier chapters when things haven’t got going yet, but most early drafts have an element of this throughout.
You think: What should happen now? Well, people need to go shopping, I’ll have my MC go to the supermarket.
Or, if the MC has just woken up: People tend to eat breakfast after they get up, so I’ll show the family having breakfast.
Yes, it's all logical and believable, but people doing stuff is not a story. It's very easy to forget this when you're tryin to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit.
Spotting this as early as possible and correcting it will make for a much smoother read, and a much smoother revision process.
Now, in general terms, you know what I’m saying. Motivation, purpose, goals, blah, blah, blah. Like most advice, the broader it is, the easier it is to understand, and the harder it is to actually implement for your specific situation.
What you need to look for is this: in your first draft, when does the character make a choice? Because those are the moments when readers decide if they’re going to stick things out and find out what happens to this person.
In narrative terms, choice doesn’t mean making a preference or exercising a whim. Choosing between a blue shirt and a white shirt is not a choice, it’s a preference. Deciding to take the short cut through the woods isn’t a choice, it’s a whim. A narrative choice requires deliberate reasoning.
Anytime it comes down to a coin toss, no real consequences, just an arbitrary call, you're wasting an opportunity.
If you wear a pink shirt because that’s your boss’s favourite colour, then that’s a choice. If you take the short cut because there’s a policeman up ahead, that too is a choice.
In real life, people often do things for no particular reason. You might think an element of that would add some authenticity to your story. You could well be right. But the reader learns nothing from these sorts of details, so it can easily end up looking like padding. It’s true to life, just not pertinent to the story.
Choices help readers get to know your characters, so the sooner they make a choice, the sooner their character will be revealed.
It doesn’t have to be a huge decision. It just has to be relevant to getting to know this character.
The reader also needs to be aware of the choices on offer. It doesn’t do any good for the choices to be in the character’s/writer’s head and not in the text. Revealing choices and reasons later might seem like a good idea, keep the reader guessing, make them intrigued, right?
Doesn’t work out that way. Mainly because as the writer you already know the reasons why everything’s happening the way it’s happening, so your ability to judge how much information the reader needs is compromised.
I would advise to overexplain in the early drafts. You may end up cutting it later, and putting in what you later takes out may seem like uncalled for effort, but going through the specific reasons for a character's actions will make the character more real and present in the scene, which is what you need in an early draft.
The question to ask is: Why does the reader think the MC is doing what they’re doing?
If the answer is: they don’t know yet (even if this is intentional), then you need to be aware that ‘don’t know’ can very quickly turn into ‘don’t care’.
That doesn’t mean they have to know THE reason, it just means they have to have A reason.
Now, obviously some reasons are going to be more interesting than others. Bland choices, no matter how clearly shown, are still bland. But this sort of things becomes self-evident once you’ve identified where the choices are being made. Making upgrades is a while lot easier once you have the basics installed.
Going through a first draft and identifying/introducing specific reasons for behaviour will immediately raise pace and momentum. Making those reasons specific to your character will make the character more engaging.
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Last in the seeries will be up next Monday.