Part vii. Revising for Strong Character

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Let's start with the one element that is absolutely crucial to a solid story: believable, convincing characters. Even if the driving force for your story is an idea and not a character, the characters you create must be more than mere pawns to carry this idea out. Yes, your fiction must be rich with ideas, but characters attract most readers to fiction—strong characters; and I don't mean heroes or heroines. I mean characters that are richly developed—complex characters.

In this part, we will look closely at key revision issues for characterization with an emphasis on main characters, but with some attention to secondary characters as well.

Rethinking Characterization

Your main character must be a strong character—one who captures the reader's attention. Strong characters are complex; they exhibit range as well as depth. And because of this range and depth, we find them compelling.

They are also called "round" characters. Like human beings, round characters are multifaceted: in their overall make-up, their motivations, and their actions. They are believable to readers because they possess the fullness of life and all of its wellsprings and depths.

But how do you achieve such characterization? This part of the book will address the techniques you need for solid character revision. Beginning with roundness...

The Round Character

Creating a Fully Human Character

A character's overall make-up includes physical appearance, personality, attributes, habits, quirks, mannerisms, speech intonation, and typical behaviors—pretty much everything that makes a fictional character. A character without any of the above is merely a series of actions and a disembodied voice with nothing distinctive about it—hardly a character at all.

But even a draft without a shred of characterization could be substantially improved by adding details to help the reader visualize this character: his or her physical appearance, maybe a few gestures, or a distinctive tone of voice. How much more is needed? You must add whatever it takes to make this character a living, breathing human, so alive to the reader that she could step right out of the pages of the story.

So, as you revise, consider these two methods of characterization:

The direct method: You write up description and exposition to capture your protagonist's appearance and distinctive qualities or attributes. Two things to consider: 1) If your point of view is third person, be as careful as you can not to intrude as the author—keeping the reader as much as possible inside your character. 2) Be sure that your character's actions match up with, and don't seem at odds with, any descriptive passages about this character—or any expository passages covering character attributes.

The indirect or dramatic method: You rely almost exclusively on scene; readers depend on the details of action and speech to visualize your protagonist. Expository passages do not directly mention key character attributes; instead, you impart them via character thought.

You may decide to combine parts of each method. Describe your character physically but do not explicitly name personal attributes. Or don't describe your character physically but do explicitly name personal attributes. It's best to try these things out, and then decide.

Now that we've looked at two useful methods of characterization, let's look for specific ways to make your character fully human. As you revise, give your character:

• More than one primary goal, behavior, or attitude.
• Several interests—practical, romantic, intellectual, etc.
• Some inner conflicts—about goals, about self, about others.
• A personal quirk, odd gesture, or noteworthy habit.
• Distinctive speech patterns or qualities.

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