Characterization and Motivation are Power

This is just a quick note to say that I’ve recently dusted off a manuscript that I was very proud of and realized *gasp* I don’t like the characters very much anymore. They’re just a little too 2-D for my taste, edging on the stereotypical; the easy to write, but not to love folks. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and books on editing lately and it’s given me a huge shock to the system. Suddenly, I’ve become aware of different ways to flesh out characters that I had been ignorant to/forgotten, especially in the face of my whopper, 1st person narrative.

I’ve heard it throughout my writerly life that you should get to know your characters. Some of my favorite authors (Sherrilyn Kenyon in particular) actually create whole pages dedicated to her protagonists. So why didn’t I do it? Maybe it’s because the worksheets I always found were focused on possibly important, but more banal info, like “What’s X’s favorite song?” Maybe that’s important. Maybe it’s not.

Still high off the jolt I got from reading The Artful Editby Susan Bell, I pulled up Word and started just writing about each character in book covermy story, trying somehow to dig out who they really are. What’s their motivation? The difficulty I have with a 1st person narrative is that by definition I’m limited to that ONE person’s view. When Jennie Smith meets Stranger Danger, she may just notice the way his eyes match some exotic thermal pool in Iceland. Or she might notice the hint of cigarettes on his lapel. Those are important details, but you can’t just rely on Jennie’s conscious observations. We certainly don’t rely just on our conscious observations in daily life. That’s where I went wrong. How about subconscious cues? It could be what Danger says, but also what he doesn’t say. His character may be silent, but the descriptors Jennie chooses, the physical attributes she notices first can tell a huge story not only about Danger, but also about who Jennie is as a person.

Language is an amazing/peculiar/challenging muse to master and I’m aware that in the grand scheme of things, I’m what Bell calls a “Macro” editor. I’m more concerned with the big picture at first, losing the fragile veins in each leaf to the forest. Her big case study in the book is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and for good reason. Fitzgerald and his editor rewrote that sucker dozens and dozens of times, paying incredible attention to every single word. When was the last time you combed through your WIP with a fine tooth? I certainly haven’t done it nearly as much as I should.

Enter in the need for understanding your character’s motivation and history and everything else about them. Your reader may only see 1/10th of the details you’ve crafted up for Danger, but that’s okay. No one likes an info dump. What they do like is knowing there’s something below those thermal eyes and the yellow tinge of his fingertips. We may not know how he struggled against addiction/abuse/living a too charmed life, but we do know how he interacts with Jennie because of it. We know how he presents himself because of it.

I’ll update as I push through this new frontier of editing and re-writing and re-imagining everything. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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