A real writer returns to her characters and deepens or alters or axes those that aren’t working.
Okay. So I’m trying to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps and I’ve rewritten my prose, like, almost thirty-nine times by dumping every word I don’t need and by choosing the absolutely best word for the meaning I want. Anytime I used the same word closely together . . . I axed one. If there’s a cliche lurking this manuscript somebody shoot me. I’ve reordered words, phrases, clauses so that it’s clear who’s speaking before the reader gets to the quotes. I’ve edited sentences to be sure the reader “gets” the emphasis I intended. I’ve transposed sentences so they are (please muse tell me this is true) CLEAR. I pray there is no “purplish prose” left on any page of this story. I love purplish prose, so cutting that is a tad difficult. “Dark and stormy nights” appeal. What can I say?
Now on to those pesky characters. Thank you Mr. Stein for you guidance. I’m passing on his wisdom and what I’ve done using it.
Here are Stein’s guidelines that I followed:
1. Ask yourself what you like most about your characters. (One at a time, please. No rushing. No clumping.) If any of them are a lot like you, change that. Stein says, give those guys something good or bad that you don’t have.
I had to do some digging for the good. The bad was easy. For the good, I made a character very patient; patience is something I have very little of and something my grandmother was always on me for. Then I made him confrontational, really confrontational. Is that bad? Can these choices be relative?
2. Ask yourself if you want to spend a lot of time with your characters, say on an island alone. If not, why?
I liked most of my characters. I discovered I really like the teacher I’d created because he would have been the one I would have chosen to have in school. I liked my romantic Juan guy because . . . never mind. I didn’t like one of my protagonist’s girlfriends. She irritated me because she talked way too much, but then I realized that I wanted her to be irritating. I decided that if I had to be on an island with her I’d pack extra Valium to spike her Pina Colada.
3. Ask yourself how well you know your characters. To find out, put them in a situation and let them react. I let mine find out I’d just married a billionaire; then I imagined their reactions to my good fortune. Jealousy popped up in some unexpected people and I noted the reactions so I could use them when I did my fortieth rewrite.
Can you add something here? What do you do when you’re rewriting and reworking those characters? Any techniques you love, hate, find useful, suggest for those in the desperate rewrite mode? Let us know.
Next REWRITING will be about scenes. OMG, not the scenes.
Beverly Stowe McClure says
My biggest problem with characters is making them the "bad" guys. I have to work at that. Great article.
I want not concur on it. I assume nice post. Particularly the appellation attracted me to review the intact story.
C. Lee McKenzie says
I'm scrambling to fix these critters of mine. I've nailed some of the minor ones and I really like how nasty and vulnerable they are, but there are a couple of slippery and not so well drawn ones that have me in a bunch.
Gotta go. I have a ms that's so needy right now.
Bish Denham says
Excellent advice! But I must confess, Hemingway is now my favorite author. I like Steinbeck.
Jemi Fraser says
I like this advice! Characters have to be real – good & bad traits. Seeing how they would react in different situations is a good idea!
Great questions about the characters. At a conference, one editor asked, "What's in her purse or pockets? What's his/her pet peeve?" I guess there are endless questions you could figure out for your character (and real people!).
Paul Greci says
Great post, Lee. In my latest revision focusing on character development. I had the mantra, "how is character x feeling right now" playing thru my head. I think it helped me go below the surface a few layers.
Linda Covella says
Perseverence, too! Thanks for the tips! I have to put more "bad" in my main characters, I think. They're always too darn good. 🙂
Tricia J. O'Brien says
Ooooo, I like this concept of checking out the characters to see if they are too much like you and then adding good and/or bad traits. That sounds very helpful for development.
Cheryl Renee Herbsman says
Great post, Lee! Methinks you've got plenty of patience to do 40 rewrites 😀