Friday, June 10, 2011

Editing the big stuff: Characters

On Wednesday we talked about fixing the big things first. One of the big things we want to make sure we get right is our characters. We want to make sure they sound fresh and original, that they're responding in ways that make sense given their background, and that they don't all sound the same.

Jeannie Campbell runs an amazing site that can help with this, called The Character Therapist. She just gave her site a face lift, and boy, does it look good.

Jeannie is a licensed therapist and writes wonderful blog posts that can help you give your characters a little "couch time." It's critical that you nail your characters, because if they're off, the plot will be too.

Here's a couple reasons why Jeannie's blog is worth stalking:

The obvious, of course - You can write more realistic characters.
You can use a search engine to find out information about a mental disorder, but those results will be very different than the information you'll find on Jeannie's site. She's treated those same problems in real life, so you're not getting a list of stale facts.

It will help you avoid clich├ęd or incorrect depictions of mental disorders.
This is a huge one. Jeannie's passionate about helping those not afflicted with mental disorders understand those who are. You want every nuance to ring true about the character, not feel cardboard cutout or stereotyped. The same goes for "types" of people who pop up in stories, like the playboy character. Jeannie wrote a wonderful article on that.

Will enhances your plot
It's important to understand your character’s internal conflict and motivations, because that's what causes tension on every page and helps you to create a journey that will challenge them the way they need to be challenged.

If you sign up for Jeannie's newsletter (which you do by going to her site and scrolling to the very bottom), she sends you a free copy of The Writer's Guide to Character Motivation, which is 28 pages long. Excellent stuff.

So when you're doing your read-through, keep your eyes open for common first draft character errors:

Places where your characters all sound the same. (It's possible you haven't fleshed out their backgrounds enough.)
Times your character's reactions seem "off."
Medical or family dynamic issues that you haven't fully researched
Quirks you gave your character in the beginning ... then forgot about somewhere after the midpoint.
Or, um, character's who play a big role in the first few chapters, then never ever show their faces again. (Not that this ever happens to a professional like me...)
Characters who all look the same
Characters who all have the same mannerisms. (Is everyone running their hands through their hair when nervous? Are they all rolling their eyes?)

Can you think of any other common character errors you should look for?


  1. A big one for us historical writers is that the characters must be true to their time. An 18th century lady isn't going to think, act, or speak like a 21st century one. Yet a lot of novelists try to take their own ideas of what an independent woman should be and then just plop said woman into history. It never rings true and can seriously mess with plot.

  2. stephanie - thanks for the kind words about my blog's facelift! :) it was so much fun doing it.

    a big error that i see when reading while wearing my professional hat is that people have misconceptions of mental disorders and these stereotypes get immortalized in fiction, which is so damaging to people who have these disorders. it perpetuates misinformation.

  3. Roseanna, I've heard a lot of editors site that as a common error they see with new historical writers. Something that seems like it would help is something you've recommended, which is reading literature from the time period, not just ABOUT the time period.

    Jeannie, I'm SO glad you've given writers a great resource. Thanks for all the hard work you put into The Character Therapist!

  4. I love making characters!

    My favourite story beginning from the free write is the one Imogen Elvis wrote. I want to read more!

  5. This is great I'm going to check out that website right NOW! I need all the help I can get!