Revising a revision strategy, part 2: Characters

This week, I’m interrogating my characters.


I finished examining my novel’s scenes last week. It was both dispiriting and energizing to find SO MANY areas for opportunity, but the exercise allowed me to sort where my novel as a whole is strong and where it needs more work–and how exactly I might improve it.

Before I made any changes, though, I wanted to try the next stage in the revision process suggested by Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook. A lot of my structural problems were also character problems: people not behaving they way they should, unclear motivations, left-field responses or interactions. Sifting through those concerns helps me to straighten out how scenes ought to play.

Following the suggestions in Wonderbook, I began with a connectivity chart. I wrote all of my characters’ names in a circle, then drew lines between the ones with relationships, writing the relationships on the lines. This helps to highlight any solo, duplicate, or unnecessary characters, as well as to suggest ideas for deepening the relationships.

Because I’ve rewritten my book several times already, I am down to a pretty tight cast. This exercise gave me some ideas for linking characters who hadn’t been linked before, which will lead to some more interesting interactions. Score!

Next, I’m going through my book again, using my scene list and my connectivity chart to examine a few key questions (borrowed from Wonderbook) about the characters in each scene:

  • Why does X act or react this way? Is there another way s/he might react? How would that change affect the rest of the narrative?
  • When X fails, are there consequences?
  • What would happen if people who don’t know each other did know each other? What kind of history do they have? How does that affect the narrative?
  • Is there a history or past between these two (or more) characters that I haven’t considered, ones that might drive their actions or speech in this scene?

As you can imagine, this is a slow process. I’m also examining where my characters behave out-of-character and smoothing out their voices.

The final step of the character interrogation is to write a plot summary from each of the non-viewpoint-characters’ perspectives. This helps to deepen their realism; everybody is the hero of their own story, even if they aren’t the hero of mine (this time). I did a lot of this in the last rewrite of this book, which changed how I wanted to approach the story and who would tell it. Hopefully for the better!

It’s really hard not to dive right into the text and fix, fix, fix all the problems (with some of the cool new ideas I’ve come up with) but I’m determined to complete this exercise for my whole book before rewriting. This big-picture, high-level review is tough, and not a little bit deflating (So. Many. Problems.). But I’m hanging in there with the hope that every little bit makes the book better–and someday, good enough to end up in your hands!

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