HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS?

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Although fiction is a much smaller category than nonfiction when it comes to books (by some measures, adult fiction titles represent about 22 percent of adult titles published, compared with 78 percent for nonfiction), there is many an aspiring novelist out there these days. Some decide to self-publish, some seek an agent who will help them sell their novel to a traditional publisher. Either way, all novelists benefit from some editing and rewriting. But before you can get to that point, you have to have a finished manuscript full of engaging characters.

Here are five quick tips to keep in mind as you work on your novel, particularly when it comes to the people who populate your pages.

Keep Track of Your Characters
A rule of thumb here: If you can’t keep track of who’s who, the reader won’t be able to, either. I’ve edited first-draft manuscripts that featured dozens of named characters. One even had more than a hundred named people—so many that two shared the same name (a Tatiana and a Tatyana—I kid you not). I’ve edited manuscripts in which John suddenly became Jim. I’ve edited manuscripts in which Sarah just suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. Poor Sarah. Make a list of all your characters, major and minor, so that you don’t lose track of who’s who and who’s doing what. Draw a family tree if necessary. Also, remember to make sure that your characters don’t have similar names, which can be confusing to the reader.

Know Each of Your Characters
This might sound too obvious to make a note of, but a lot of characters in novels aren’t fully drawn. Surprise! It’s not enough to say that Brenda has ocean-blue eyes and chestnut-brown hair and rosebud lips. Even if Brenda is a minor character in a subplot, your readers deserve to know a little more about her. If she’s not worth describing, ask yourself whether she’s really necessary at all. If she is worth describing, get to know her. Write a resume or an obituary for each of your characters, detailing who they are and what they’ve done. Not all of these details will appear in your manuscript, but the flavor will, enriching each character.

Kill-Off the Characters Who Don’t Drive Your Story Forward
Poor Brenda. If she’s not really necessary, it’s time to get rid of her. Work her out of the story, replacing her with a more important character who really makes a difference when it comes to your plot. Each character—everything they do, everything they say—should be driving the story forward, even if they’re part of a subplot or meaningful distraction. If a character isn’t working to advance the story, ask yourself what that person is doing there in the first place.

Key-In on the Details of Your Characters
Along with knowing your characters goes giving each of your characters different characteristics. Each person who populates the pages of your story should not only look different, but they should all have different speaking patterns and they should all behave differently from one another. Not that you have to go to extremes to make Jonah sound different from Joshua, but give each character his or her own quirks, idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, and habits. Remember that your readers need to know your characters as well as you do, so be sure to paint a full picture of each of the people in your story.

Knock It Out With All the Names
Not every human being who appears in your manuscript needs to be named. If Patrick hails a cab, we need not necessarily know that the cabdriver is named David, particularly if the cabdriver exists only for a few lines, never to appear again. Names prime the reader to expect that the character is important, so incidental humans who appear in the story need not be named.

As you write your novel, think about some of the characters you’ve read through the years who have really stuck with you. Why have they stuck with you? What about them left such a mark? Why did you like or dislike that character? In answering those questions, remember that your own characters deserve to be known and remembered as well—by you and your readers.

—Kelli
April 1, 2017

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