What mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?
Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.
How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.
Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.
Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.
The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.
The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.
What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.
- Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.
Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.
Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.
In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?
- Characters also need to be properly motivated.
Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.
The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?
- Finally, characters need to be unique.
Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.
A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.
In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?
Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.
Thirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.
The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?
By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.
This article is a re-post of the original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.
4 responses to “Heart Surgery”
“Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place.”
Yes! I see this frequently in my copy editing clients and I don’t think they either understand what I’m saying or even care. They think it’s fine the way it is. Thank you for this good post which I can use to back me up on this point. As in, “See, it’s not just *me* saying this!”
Susan, it’s always good to find someone else working toward the same end. I’m happy to have your back. 😉
I’m glad we editors are sticking together on this, Susan. I do think there’s a tendency for newer writers to think “revision” means cosmetic changes in grammar and punctuation. I know that’s what I thought. I loved my story and didn’t see the weaknesses. It took a long time reading what writing instructors were saying before it all started to click.
Today, though, self-publishing is so easy, I’m afraid too many writers will opt for the quick path to publication and never get to the issues that could improve their writing.
That’s where editors need to stand the line, I guess. 😀
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