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How to Edit Characters

As we continue this editing series how we can develop a great story, I hope you’re able to see that the elements of storytelling hinges on more than concept and characters. By having all the layers in place before actually writing, you can have a clearer idea of where your story is going. Or if you’ve already written your book, how to make sure all the layers are in place so that you give your readers a delightful reading experience.

The sixth layer in developing a great story is developing your character within your story, whether nonfiction or fiction.

Your character is your readers’ best friend. Your character makes or breaks the story. Your character helps readers grow. Your character has influence on all other characters in the story. Your character must create empathy in your readers.

How to Edit Your Characters

  • What does your character want most?
  • What are winsome/lose-some qualities about your character?
  • How is your character motivated?

What does your character want most?

As you know, in storytelling, it’s really what drives the main character. What do they want? And the best way to show that is to show the character interacting with themselves, other characters, and the events of the story.

As I’ve said before, the greater the need, the bigger the story. So if your character wants to fly around the world, not in eighty days, but in ten, how on earth is this possible, and why do they want to do something so impossible? If your character wants to fulfil a promise to a dying loved one, then what is the internal satisfaction they’ll gain from it? Don’t just have your character want to go out on a date for the first time in twenty years; give your character a reason for wanting to do so, and maybe the motivation for waiting so long.

We must ask ourselves the following potential questions (not exhaustive, by any means):

  • Does what your character want stem from their past experiences, even before the book opens up?
  • Does what they want stem from something that just happened within the story itself? For example, the want changes. (For this to work, you’d have to have a really good reason, and you’d have to set up the story really well.)
  • Does what your character want leap off the first page, or within the first five pages?
  • Why does your character want what he/she wants?
  • Is your character’s desire from someone else’s expectation or from their own?
  • What would your character do if he/she didn’t get what they wanted?
  • What would he/she do if they got what they wanted?

What are winsome/lose-some qualities about your character?

I say winsome or lose some because if we had a character that was Goody Two-shoes all the time, I think we’d be throwing the book at the wall.

It’s better to have a character with a deep struggle that they grapple with throughout the book, and come to accept by the end. Maybe that deep struggle becomes their saving grace. If your character’s winsome qualities can somehow compliment their lose some qualities, that is even better, because it’s the constructive qualities that present the greatest challenges and victories.

These qualities can be internal, external, philosophical, esoteric, or however you choose them to be. And the more you mix them up or the quirkier they are, the stronger your character will be.

How is your character motivated?

Propelling the character forward through the plot is tough. Not gonna lie. It’s that delicate balance between stop, listen to the birdsong, and go, race through the sun-splashed woods.

In making the most of your character throughout the story, it’s important to understand why he/she is doing what they’re doing. It’s important to dive deep into the outer and inner motivations. If they want to make a trip cross country but are delayed by a snowstorm, do they drive forward anyway? What if your character doesn’t get what they want in the first place … do they flip the coin to see what their next option is, or do they sit and stew for days and days, until someone helps them snap out of it?

Whatever your character’s motivation, readers should be on pins and needles on your character’s behalf—because you have created a winsome character that tends to lose some sometimes. It’s all part of the character journey.

Secret Sauce to the Best Character Development. Ever.

“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”

–Henry David Thoreau

“We become the books we read.”

–Matthew Kelly

The books we read. The characters we create. Both of these speak to the integrity and endurance of the fictional characters we create, or the real-life characters we write about in our nonfiction.

Each writer and author benefits from exploring their characters inside and out, while asking “why?” at every turn when crafting their character’s reactions and responses throughout the story because it’s really the secret sauce to writing a great story that captivates agents, editors, readers, marketers, and the person who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book and read it.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to engage in the conversation with you! Drop your question or comment in the chat below, and I’ll look forward to responding!

Your Turn!

What is the best quality or trait about your character, and why?

What is your favorite character in a book or movie, and what makes you like or dislike them?

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