There are so many steps to the revision process when you write a book (word flow, transition, plot holes, habit words, etc., etc., etc.,) but one aspect to double check is to make sure you have compelling characters. Without them, your book will get tossed aside faster than a vacuous date. What pieces do you need in place? Here’s a revision checklist, specifically a character checklist to use during revisions.
Revision Checklist: Make Your Reader Care
Watch out for characters the reader won’t care about or won’t want to follow through an entire book.
Does a character have to be perfectly nice, moral, courageous and all that? Nope. Characters can have flaws (in fact they should) even be borderline unlikeable, but your reader can still care for them, warts and all.
Lisbeth Salander from Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Minnie from The Help, Odd Thomas from Odd Thomas—none of these characters are perfect. That’s why we love ’em. (For ideas on how to make your readers connect to your character, read The “It” Factor for Your Protagonist or Character Flaw: Make it Count.)
Revision Checklist: Distinct Characters
Beware of characters unrecognizable from each other in your story or whose dialogue sounds the same. Be sure you give each character some markers appropriate to their specific background and education level with different ways of communicating, both through what they say and how they say it. If you write your dialogue well, you almost shouldn’t need tags to identify who is saying what. (Beware of distracting dialects and colloquialisms, though. As with everything, balance is the key.)
Another great way to build character markers is through body language. Just as people move differently and have unique mannerisms and gestures, so should your characters. (For information on body language for characters, read Writing is All About the (Body) Language.)
Don’t forget how each character thinks! Get inside your characters’ heads and discover not only how they look at the world, but how they see themselves in the world. Know their beliefs, goals, and needs. All these details will give you fresh characters that are anything but carbon copies of you.
Revision Checklist: Characters with Conflict
If you have no conflict in your characters, you have boring characters. How do you make sure this isn’t the case? We’ve already touched on giving your character flaws, but thoroughly think through what fear drives them. If you know what your character most fears, she will have strong motivation (and not always on the right side of morality) for her actions. Fear in your character will drive your story and make her choices difficult.
Give your character a secret and don’t reveal it to the reader immediately. A secret will keep your reader interested, but also serve as constant conflict for your character. If her secret is something she’s experienced in the past, it gives her a struggle with past fear in the present-day story. If it’s something she’s done in the past that haunts her, she won’t want anyone in the story to find it out and will go to great pains to keep it under wraps. Of course, you will be sure to reveal at some point in the story, at the worst possible time and place for your character.
Discover your character’s internal struggle and use it! Give your protagonist choices in a story, and make what they want deep down inside (their need) clash with what they want (their goal). This internal/external conflict will drive even quiet scenes.
So be sure something is always wrong, both in the external action-world of the story and internally, within your characters. Conflict. Every page.
Revision Checklist: Character Motivation
Be sure everything your characters do has motivation behind it. Nothing will lose a reader like poor or no motivation. Character motivations drive the plot and not the other way around. If a reader doesn’t “buy” something a character does, it just means that the motivation wasn’t clear enough.
Revision Checklist: Character Arc
Make sure your protagonist has a character arc…in other words, she changes due to the events and pressures of the story. Characters who do not grow, learn or change will bore a reader to pieces. There has to be a point to the story. It’s usually found in the character arc. Reward your reader as they see your character “get it” or find meaning or experience redemption.
Revision Character Checklist Review
- A Character Reader Cares About
- Distinct Characters
- Characters with Conflict
- Character Motivation
- Character Arc
The Good News
If you are missing any of these (and you should be because let’s face it, writing never comes out perfect—or even good—the first time around) you can fix it in rewrites! As bestselling author Michael Crichton says, “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
So make sure during one of those rewrites you check your characters and make them compelling.
Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion,” available online and in bookstores everywhere. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, “Between the Lines.” She writes from a log home in the woods of southwestern Wisconsin that she shares with her husband and three cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com