Revision: Character


My Perceval characters have their own separate file.  I’ve maintained this file from the beginning.  Initially, I collected photos of people who resembled the characters in my mind, wrote out the answers to a series of questions for each character, and interviewed the three major characters in the first book.  As the series has grown from one book to five, I use the file to hold all my notes on each character by novel.  Each book has its own problem for Evan to solve for himself, so each problem presents opportunities for new people in his life.  All this can get complicated.  I needed a way to keep track of everything about each character in each book, something I could reference during the revision process.

In addition to my characters file, I have another file for the entire series which I call “Perceval Redux.”  In this file I collect notes on the series, my notes on the subplots, notes on the shape of America in 2048-50, Evan’s character arc over the 5 books, a master calendar of events, and a list of characters.  On this list I include for each character name, age, code name, career notes, personality notes, education, citizenship, physical appearance; then a brief summary of what the character does in which book, color coded by book.  When I sit down to do the Perceval revision, before I read through the manuscript, I’ll read through both the characters and the Perceval Redux files and keep them handy as I work on the revision.

Physical appearance:  It’s important for the writer to have a clear picture of each character in her mind, but that doesn’t mean she must provide a detailed description for the reader.  In fact, it’s often wiser to focus on one to three specific characteristics that can also reveal personality traits.  So, as I work through the revision, I will look for passages of “over-description” that will need trimming or deletion and focus in on what physical characteristics can also reveal character.  During revision, it’s also a good thing to keep character continuity in mind, especially about things like hair color, eye color, height, weight, facial hair, etc. if I’ve noted those things.  It can really annoy a reader if in one chapter the main character has brown eyes and in the next they’ve changed to blue.

Motivation: During revision, the main task here is to insure that a character’s motivation remains consistent unless a change has been set-up and executed.  The main character’s motivation will remain the most consistent as it drives the dramatic momentum, which doesn’t mean he can’t have angst and doubt.  Other characters can have more mystery.  Often, what appears to be the case, isn’t.  But the writer needs to be clear in her own mind of each character’s motivation(s) whether she shows that information in the story or not.  One thing to watch for: a too-early reveal concerning motivation.  Withholding this information builds suspense.  I especially love how human behavior can be ambiguous.

Speech and Action: Once I’ve established a character’s speech pattern, I need to maintain it.  During revision, one task is to double check dialogue for inconsistencies in speech or vocabulary patterns.  For action, I focus on character continuity.  If a character does something he physically cannot or morally would not, that action needs change.  If a character fails to act, I ask myself what he would do in the situation I’ve created, and/or why he failed to act in the earlier draft.  Does he know what to do?  Or is the character trying to tell me something about the scene, like that it’s wrong or the setting’s wrong or something?

Scenes: Finally, I go through the scene list for each chapter and update for any revisions I’ve made to the scenes.  The idea for the scene list by chapter came from Noah Lukeman in his book The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life.  The scene list can also be a check for how often a character appears, with whom he appears and interacts, what he does, and for foreshadowing and setting up situations.  I highly recommend Lukeman’s clear, concise book.

Theoretically, with each revision, I would change or edit less.  But my experience has shown that it’s not a cumulative effect.  I expect that even after bookstores, online and off, are selling Perceval, I’ll find something I want to change…..

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One response to “Revision: Character

  1. I’m fond of a series of supernatural-detective novels (The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher). The protagonist, Dresden, tells the story in the first person, occasionally referring to his own appearance in some way. e.g., his unusual height compared to a particularly short character. One often wonders how the mental image matches the author’s. There is a new graphic novel of the books. Butcher wrote a forward to the first one, claiming the artist had gotten Dresden’s appearance almost perfectly. Interestingly, the image on the paper was very close to my mental picture. I assume Butcher’s writing much be effective.

    However, before this happened, with the only image of this character being the one from Butcher’s words, I did a complete double-take at the cafe as I passed a man who completely matched the image in my mind, almost down to the trademark duster. Bizarre.

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