Updated: Apr 24, 2020
A reader will forgive many things, flat characters aren't one of them!
You've done the work to create fascinating protagonists and antagonists that make your story sizzle. Now that you're in the editing stages of your novel, it's time to polish them up. This post is about making your already amazing characters even better. Read on for 7 self-edits that can help your characters shine!
Remember: Good editing is about clearing away anything that might distract from the message.
Oh, and this is the second post in the series. If you're just joining us now, go check out this post on self-editing your first draft! I talk about WHY you should learn to self-edit and share 11 self-edit tips.
I'm not an editor, but I learned a lot while I was preparing my own novel for publication. I have gathered tips from all over the internet, and am now laying out the ones I found helpful here for you.
First off, like before, copy and paste your current manuscript into a new document before doing big changes. Keeping your first and second drafts intact gives you the confidence to make changes without worrying that you are going to wreck everything.
Here we go with 8 tips to help your characters shine!
1. Stick to your Perspective
Being aware of your chosen point of view can sharpen your writing and plot.
When you wrote your first draft, you chose one of three perspectives:
First Person: I went to the park.
Second Person: You went to the park.
Third Person: She went to the park.
As you self-edit, you need to make sure you stuck to your chosen option!
In the first person, you see and feel the story through their perspective alone, unless you very explicitly show that the viewpoint has changed. The Artemis Fowl books often change viewpoints multiple times in one scene, so it can be done, but it is not for amateurs. A reader is inherently lazy, we don't want to work to find out what's going on.
Lots of YA novels like the first-person perspective. If you chose first-person, read your manuscript and make sure you aren't jumping out of your character's body and describing things they wouldn't see or know.
In the second person, the writer is putting the reader as the main character and describing what you are doing. Tricky! If you ever read the 'Choose Your Own Adventures', you're familiar with this perspective. It can be off-putting in a novel. If you choose this perspective, have a good reason.
You can write in the third person in a few ways. One way is to be the narrator who knows the whole story already, drops hints of what's coming up next, and explains things to the reader. I think of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket. Make sure that you are keeping the narrator's personality consistent throughout because it's really a whole other character.
Another way is used by J K Rowling. She generally sticks to Harry Potter's experiences only. We don't get into the head of the other characters, we only see Harry's perspective of them. If Harry is unconscious, we don't see what's happening around him. (Other characters sometimes experience the action, but it's usually to show necessary backstory.) If you go this route, don't be the “eye in the sky” with omnipotent knowledge. You want your readers to experience and learn with your character.
Stephen King's writing style in The Stand is also in the third person but goes a different route. He has several main characters, and switches through their points of view, often within the same chapter multiple times. The reader sees the larger world view and knows more than the individual characters do—which can build plenty of tension.
So, whatever perspective you chose to write your book in, make sure you've stuck to it! This is about more than simple grammar rules, this is about being accurate about what your character can know, as well as see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Speaking of that . . .
2. Write All Your Senses!
I generally have no trouble writing what a character sees and hears, but I need to remind myself to add in the other senses: touch, smell, taste.
Describing the senses can often take the place of more flat narration. She was hot.
A bead of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades.
One brings you into the story a bit more, don't you think?
A smell can set a scene!
I love 'Call the Midwife'. The big difference between reading the books versus watching the TV series is that the books bring you into the experience in a way TV just can't. When Jennifer Worth describes the scent of a squalid house filled with dirty diapers and unwashed bodies, your nose wrinkles in disgust!
Touch brings you closer.
The prickly sensation of jumping into a cold lake. The grit of sand between teeth on a windy day on the beach. The burning under the ribs from running too far. The heat of a fresh cup of coffee—ll these things bring a person to life and take your reader deeper.
Taste goes beyond food.
Bile at the back of the throat. Morning breath. Blood from a split lip. Mud. Hairspray. If your scene involves something getting on your character's face, there's a good chance they can taste it!
So, as you read your book through, double check, are you including the other senses?
Oh, and don't forget our “sixth senses” either.
That tingling of hair standing up. The prickly sense of being watched. The clench of anxiety. The butterflies of nervousness.
3. No Cookie-Cutter People!
Are your characters individuals? Chances are you made some sort of a list showing a few of your character's likes, dislikes, etc. Check it, and make sure at least a couple of those tidbits made it in. Slide them in organically though. There is no point in making a big deal of their love of pizza if they never eat one. (Unless that's the point!) If you bring a quirk into the story, try to add it a few times for realism, but use it to further the story or mood. Perhaps have them enjoying a favorite hobby, showing off a skill, or giving in to a bad habit like chewing their nails. Everybody is unique, make sure your character's own self shines through the pages.
4. Utilize Your Character Descriptions
Okay, these are trickier than they sound, am I right?!
When reading a book, I don't enjoy getting a basic physical description of every character as if they're on a dating app. Describing eye color and hair color can be boring for readers. Try to just pick out the points of your character that are interesting or a feature that says something about who they are.
Think of your favorite character's descriptions.
Anne of Green Gables has large eyes, a remarkably pretty nose, lots of freckles, and red hair. Her red hair and freckles add to the storyline and the character's development.
Tris in Divergent is described as being not exactly pretty, but she is "striking" after having her hair cut and wearing eyeliner. Her description shows how she grows and changes as she chooses her own path.
Elizabeth Bennet does not get a description besides having fine eyes and tolerable teeth and not being as pretty as her older sister. The fact she is happy for Jane to be the beauty of the family says a lot about her love for her sister and how that will affect the plot.
Harry has his father's messy hair and his mother's eyes, something that constantly reminds him (and the reader) of the parents he lost.
Can you bring your character's descriptions up a notch to make them a part of the story?
Describe what makes your character unique. A bad haircut, denim jeans with cowboy boots, protruding ears, a childish figure, or perfectly applied red lipstick are usually more interesting than eye and hair color. Also don't forget to make sure you've included posture, hand gestures, and facial expressions in your story action too.
My own pet peeve, do not make your characters perfectly beautiful. I remember one book where the main character hated that men were always staring at her because of her stunning beauty. (eye roll!)
5. Make Dialogue Realistic
She said what?! Read your dialogue aloud. Does it sound like something that person would actually say?
I often write speech very prim and proper. Simply adding contractions to my dialogue goes a long way to loosen it up. (Bonus, it also reduces word count!) However, one of my characters has a tendency to perfectionism, so he never uses contractions. He also uses a richer vocabulary than the other characters and can be long-winded. That's part of giving each character their own voice.
6. Give Each Character Their Own Voice
Giving each of my characters their own voice is something I'm still learning, but basically you don't want all your characters to say things the same way.
They are all individuals with their own personalities, flaws, goals, etc. They will not all react to the same thing in the same way. Let them shine!
Please do not rely on incomprehensibly garbled speech to show an accent.
As a reader, I end up skipping over those parts. Think of the servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights. I wasn't able to fully enjoy his rich character because of Emily Bronte's efforts to make me “hear” the Scottish accent. Picking just a couple words to spell phonetically (and making sure you stick to this new spelling!) or using the word “bairn” for child or “ken” for know is much preferable to jumbled spelling and millions of apostrophes to try to make me understand an accent.
Use vocabulary, figures of speech, and similes that apply to that character's lifestyle.
People from different walks of life speak differently. I'm not saying to stereotype a character, but I know I don't talk like a doctor in surgery. Word choice should match the character. A gambler might decide to “double down” and ask a pretty girl for her phone number. An investment banker might say “her skin was as warm and smooth as a fresh sheet of photocopy”, but a cowboy sure wouldn't make that comparison (and I don't suggest you do, either, haha!).
If you like, go ahead and give them a favorite phrase too.
Like Scarlet O-Hara's “fiddle-dee-dee” in Gone with the Wind, or Tom Cullen's “M-O-O-N spells . . .” from The Stand. Both phrases help you know a little more about the character. Scarlet uses her favorite expletive to show her alluring femininity and yet also her disdain for things she doesn't like. Tom Cullen's memorable phrase can lighten a dreary scene, and also reminds you of his learning disability without having to “tell” it all the time.
7. Ditch Boring Conversation
You're going to want to skip all the trite pleasantries you can.
"Hello," she said.
"Hi!" he replied.
"How's it going?"
Booooooring. If the dialogue is not adding to the scene, furthering the story, or revealing something about a character, scrap it.
8. Check Dialogue Tags
I have found conflicting advice on speech tags. You can find ridiculously long lists on "said is dead", but if you read quality fiction, "said is very much alive". Generally, most experts agree, stick with "said" as much as you can.
A reader should be able to tell if a speech is "sneered", "wailed" or "snapped" by the action around the dialogue, or the dialogue itself. This doesn't mean just adding an adverb unto "said" either. "said angrily" is weaker than "yelled". I'm a sucker for the adverbs "mischievously" and "sheepishly" tacked onto my speech tags, so trust me, I won't judge.
Just weed out speech descriptions that aren't necessary. Make sure the speech tags aren't carrying all the action of the story.
Sometimes, try just dropping speech tags altogether. You can do this by mixing action and dialogue and being careful with paragraph breaks, and it only really works well with a conversation between two people. Always err on the side of clarity.
So, in summary, when self-editing your characters, ask yourself:
1. Do you have a consistent point of view?
2. Did you add the senses?
3. Are you avoiding cookie-cutter people?
4. Are your character descriptions interesting, or (even better) actually telling something about that person?
5. Is your dialogue realistic?
6. Did you give every character their own voice?
7. Have you cut all the boring conversations you can?
8. Are your dialogue tags clear and not carrying all the action?
I hope this post was helpful to you! If you'd like me to go into more depth on a topic, or if you'd like to disagree with me (both are welcome!) please comment or send me a message!
If you're ready for the next step in your writing journey, come see how to self-edit your novel's structure and styles!