Much has been written on development of characters when setting out to write a novel, a short story, or even a picture book manuscript. Advice to complete character interviews, profiles and arcs abound. I’ve used them all to delineate the early aspects of my characters and note the differences between characters. Despite the use of all of these techniques and tools, I still came up short in a review of my latest novel.
In last month’s manuscript critique with Delacorte’s Kate Sullivan, we discussed the need to put the final polish and finesse on my characters, one in particular. Because I have alternating narrators, two distinct stories are being told. And while the stories intertwine, they must stand alone in detail and distinction. One protagonist is a quiet, introspective teen who picks up on a wealth of detail, while the other is a “quit-your-whining-and-get-on-with-it” personality. Each protagonist must be equally complex to the reader, even if the core of the character appears to be outwardly simple. And just as plots and subplots need to be tightened and mined for nuggets of gold, so must our characters. Everything our characters do must be deliberate and refined. I returned home after the critique, high on motivation and energy to make these changes. I quickly realized that my self-taught world of novel writing did not provide guidance to finesse and tweak a character in the final stages of revision. But I discovered two methods that have been invaluable.
Picking up what I had once believed to be my last draft, I combed through the manuscript scene by scene and made notes in the margins as to what each of my narrators might observe in that particular moment. This setting-specific questioning brought my characters into focus with what made them tick in very specific circumstances. What the character feels, says, and observes will differ from scene to scene. A character might be driven by odors and temperatures in one scene, and sights and feelings in another. Does tension get ratcheted up because the character is self-conscious about an outfit or sees a nemesis in the corner of the room? And what happened that day to drive the behavior in the character? This level of understanding my characters rarely came through in those beginning character profiles and explorations. Just as humans might react differently in any given situation on any given day (lack of sleep, hunger, fights with loved ones or the threat of a layoff at work will drive different behaviors than if we’re rested, fed and in our happy place), our characters will behave erratically at times as well. Each scene (and the details the narrator presents to the reader) must be thoughtful to that particular moment.
The second technique I’ve used is creating photo collages of the landscape, houses, schools, cars, clothing, décor, and character images. I had already completed this exercise for earlier drafts of the manuscript, but this time I faced off with my protagonists. I studied the collage through each of my narrator’s eyes and wrote down what each would see. My introspective narrator extracts entirely different details than my get-’er-done protagonist. And it is in these unique observations that the manuscript comes to life. By mining these rich nuggets of description, I have refined the voice of the story. And it is in the subtle detail of voice that we hook the reader.
So the next time you’re stuck trying to make the last draft or two of your manuscript pop into life, tackle a new photo collage and plow through your scenes with specific detail in mind. If you listen closely, your characters will show you what’s important at that moment in time.