Lesson 4: Re-Visioning Your Story
While writing the first draft you can allow your characters to ‘'take over' your story, but not so in revision. During revision you may find that your characters react more than act, are less than focused on their goals, or simply aren’t a good fit for your story. In that case you have some characters that need re-visioning.
Every character in your story must be there for a purpose. A story is not like life where you meet random people that appear and disappear without disturbing your world. Every character should serve your story by doing the work of the story. Even in a heavily plot driven story, your characters must be in the driver's seat. So how do you make certain your characters are taking charge? With more analysis of your story, of course.
Before you read your story this time, you're going to make a table or an excel spreadsheet. Across the top there should be columns for number, character name, role, traits, relationships, and physical attributes.
Number the rows of your table so that you will have a total count of characters when you've finished.
A Rose By Any Other Name
Sorry Shakespeare, the wrong name would not smell as sweet. In stories, character names matter. In this column, list every character you have named in your story. Does the name suit the time and setting of your story? Could Huckleberry Finn have been named Mycroft Holmes? What if Arwen had been named Hester Prynne?
Does the name suit your character? Consider the names Scarlett O’Hara vs. Jane Eyre. Is there any other name that would suit Hannibal Lecter? What about Voldemort? Each name evokes a certain feeling, an expectation. What can your reader expect based on your character names?
Another thing to look for in revision is how many of your characters have look alike or sound alike names? John and Sean can be confusing. Even in the television series Charmed where one of the gimmicks was that the sisters’ names each began with the letter P, the characters had distinctly different names: Piper, Prue, Phoebe, and Paige.
Characters play certain roles in stories. This is not to say they should be stereotypes. But if you understand the role your character plays in your story, you will be better able to refine your character's motivations and goals. Character development could be a series in and of itself and not the focus of this post. In this post I will only briefly define each of these roles. (for brevity and clarity I use the pronoun he).
Protagonist: the character whose pursuit of a goal drives the story in a particular direction. Often the story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, but not always.
Hero: according to most definitions the essential trait of a hero is self-sacrifice. This doesn’t necessarily mean your character has to die, but he must pay a price to obtain his goal. King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo function in their stories as heroes.
Anti-hero: generally this is the protagonist who makes choices that are not heroic or of a self-sacrificing nature. Macbeth is the classic anti-hero.
Antagonist: The Antagonist has a goal in direct opposition to the protagonist’s and does everything in his power to keep the protagonist from his goal.
Sidekick: A Sidekick is loyal, faithful, and supportive. He can be associated with either the protagonist or antagonist. He can be a dog, a robot, an alien, or a human.
Mentor, sometimes also called guardian or teacher: The Mentor can be a wise teacher such as Obi Wan Kanobi to Luke Skywalker or Dumbledorf to Harry Potter. He can also require the hero pass a test before bestowing an object that the hero will need later in the story.
Reason: This character role generally appeals to the logic and reasoning of other characters in the story. Examples of this type are Dr. Spock, Hermoine, and Sherlock Holmes.
Emotion: This character role generally appeals to the emotions of other characters in the story. In the Harry Potter books Ron fills that role. Dr. McCoy and Deanna Troi are Star Trek characters in this role.
Skeptic also called contagonist, trickster or temptress: This character is a clown, a mischief maker, or skeptic or is contrary to the protagonist or hero. Fred and George Weasley are the mischief makers in the Harry Potter series.
Spear Carriers: These are characters whose purpose is limited to specific scenes. They might have a piece of information or a weapon or item that the hero needs. These characters are not larger-than-life types and often do not have names.
Setting or background: These are the characters of crowd scenes. They enrich your story by demonstrating that there are other people in your story world. They do not interact with your story characters but sometimes they serve as obstacles such as the crowds in the movie, Blade Runner.
Narrator: The Narrator tells the story about the protagonist or hero. Dr. Watson is a narrator.
Not every story will have every character role in it. Sometimes one character serves multiple roles. For example a protagonist can also be a hero or an anti-hero. A sidekick can represent emotion or reason, sometimes even the skeptic.
Every character you list must fulfill at least one role. If you cannot tell what role your character fills in the story, neither can your reader. That character needs to be better focused or killed off.
No two characters should fulfill the same role. If you find you have more than one sidekick who is the emotion character, merge them or kill one off.
In this table you are creating, characteristics are the three primary personality traits of your main characters. Is he honest, trustworthy, and reluctant? Or is he self-aggrandizing, dishonest, and loyal to his gang?
Why did I say three traits? A series of three conveys a kind of balance, a rhythm. The Rule of Three exists in story structure (beginning, middle, and end), titles (The Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, etc.), jokes and comedy usually have a series of three beats (ba-dum-dah!), and the most minimal and stable structure is three-legged.
These traits should be the three that are typical to your character, the ones that matter to them. If these traits are important to your characters (either consciously or subconsciously) then your reader will also care about them. To avoid stereotypes, I suggest that each character have one unexpected trait as in my examples above.
Do you show the primary traits of your characters in action on the page? If not, your character may appear weak or dilute to your reader.
Do your character's primary traits match his character role and (for your main characters) his story goal? Your story will be even stronger if your character's traits relate to your story theme.
If you find that your characters are not consistent, or have more than three characteristics, you must carefully consider whether that enhances your story or not. Inconsistency and too many characteristics confuse the reader.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Relationships matter, in the real world and in the world of fiction. What relationship does each character have to the other? Are they friends, enemies, or frenemies? Perhaps they are family but the family is highly dysfunctional. Are they best buds or new acquaintances?
How do your characters feel about each other? They do feel something, don’t they?
What feeling does your character evoke in your readers? This is also a relationship you, the writer, must build. You build this relationship by understanding why should your reader care about this character.
If you find the relationships of your characters do not enhance your story, re-visioning is necessary.
Let’s Get Physical
The physical attributes of your character are the least important. Your reader will fill in blanks, so unless the genre of your story requires detailed descriptions, don’t over describe. Some description is essential. But do the physical attributes of your characters contribute to the story? At the very least, the physical attributes should not get in the way of the story. If your ninety pound weakly goes through the entire story without working on his muscle tone, he’d better not be able to be able to scale the mountain and beat the martial arts expert in order to obtain his goal.
When you introduce the character, does the introduction include specific traits or features? Remember that each descriptor you use increases the reader's expectation that this character is important. If the character isn’t that important to the story, delete some of those traits and physical descriptions.
Are the physical attributes consistent? Readers hate it when the blue-eyed brown haired protagonist turns out to have coal black hair and twinkling hazel eyes three chapters later.
Does everyone look the same? Sometimes that can be the point of your story, if so, soldier onward. Most of the time your story is much stronger if you have contrasts in the physical appearance of your characters.
Do Numbers Matter?
In short, yes. It is difficult for a reader to care about a cast of thousands. Look over your cast of characters. Are there characters that appear in only one scene? Is that character necessary? Is there a way to use that character in other scenes? If not, perhaps you should consider rewriting that scene, un-name that character, or delete that character.
The number of characters in your story depends upon the scope of your story. A more intimate story should have fewer characters. A large, sweeping saga will have more characters. Remember, the more characters you have the more dilute your story may become. If your story requires a multitude of characters I strongly recommend that you study successful books such as George RR Martin's series, A Song of Fire and Ice. The more characters you have, the stronger your other writing skills must be.
If you've been following my Re-visioning Your Story series, you've read your manuscript a few times already. Hopefully, you are not sick of your manuscript, but if you are, hang in there. The light is at the end of the tunnel, sometimes it's a long tunnel, but if you keep moving, you'll get there.
This time, as you read your manuscript you will be focused on your characters. Fill in the table as you read. Again, do not revise, do not change one typo. Make notes of things you would consider changing and of the things you wouldn't change. All your notes, all the dissected parts of your manuscript are brewing in your writer's brain. There are just a few more things to evaluate, then your muse will be ready to pull it all together and turn your manuscript into the story you wanted to write.
I'd love to hear how you are doing with your deconstruction of your manuscript. Won't you take a moment to write a comment or two?
ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story