From time to time a novelist needs to change something in a story. Perhaps a minor character is flat or comes across as a stereotype and needs to be fleshed out with his own personality or backstory. Perhaps a scene needs to be added to do the work that a piece of telling narrative had done. What writers should remember is this: these changes make a difference, not just to that one scene or character, but to the entire novel.
I’ll speak from personal experience to illustrate this point. In one of my earliest drafts of my journey-quest fantasy, I realized that all my characters were single. It’s not a realistic scenario, and it’s a problem I’ve noticed in a number of TV programs. Hence, I decided to give a couple of my characters spouses. In one instance the man’s wife even joined the team on the quest.
Immediately everything about that character changed. He had a new motivation–not just his own well-being but that of his wife. He had a new relationship to cultivate, not just the one he’d established with the protagonist. He had new behavior patterns, new interests, and . . . more people in his backstory. There were his in-laws, of course, but what about children? Yes, I decided, it would be natural for he and his wife, given their ages and how long they’d been married, to have children. But what became of them? Suddenly I had a new plot point to go along with this revision.
And speaking of plot points, I recently made a change in my manuscript that added a point of view and several chapters. This addition seemed like the best way to get rid of a chunk of narrative summary that wasn’t working. Except, when I fleshed out the events and created a scene, I expanded the point of view character as well. The scene required it.
It also required that I kill one of the minor characters in those chapters, someone the point of view character had been close to.
Could I simply insert those chapters into my manuscript and leave my point of view character unchanged the rest of the way? Not if the story is to seem realistic. When someone we know well dies, we grieve, and the grief often lingers and surprises us when we least expect it. My character, therefore, can not soldier on as if nothing significant happened in those add-on chapters. She needs to respond differently to certain lines of dialogue. She needs to have changes in her motivation and behavior and countenance.
One revision leads to many more. Or it should. If we are simply giving a character a wife without changing him in any other way, our revision isn’t real. It’s simply window dressing. We can’t give a character a new motivation without it playing out throughout the rest of the novel in her actions and speech.
We can’t promote a character to a higher rank without it affecting how he talks to those who are now his subordinates. We can’t give a character a rebel father without it influencing his politics, his choices. We can’t make a character power hungry without having him struggle to control his desire, or succumb to it.
In short, one change needs to start a cascade of change if revision is to work.