I’m starting a new series on LitLib called, “Craft and Draft.” It’s going to be an out-loud, unfiltered learning experience for me that I hope others can benefit from as well. It’ll be focused on the drafting and revision process and all the crazy magic-voodoo shit I’m learning in grad school!
The great thing about the contextual ambiguity and synonymous nature of the words in the title is that I can use them interchangeably to talk about writing or beer. I am so clever.
Hope you enjoy. These posts will be filed under the “Literature” and “Writing” categories for future reference.
Disclaimer: I am a 26 year old male and still have a childlike infatuation with Lego. I also take bubbles baths when I’ve had a rough day, almost cried when Will Smith (Dr. Robert Neville) had to kill his dog after it got infected, think hydrangeas are pretty flowers, and know all the lyrics to That’s What Friends Are For by Dionne Warwick and Friends.
Deal with it.
As happy productive authors, we all want to be parents to our characters, raise them up right, and teach them to hate the things we hate. But characters (and to a lesser extent personal voice in nonfiction) aren’t our children. They are our creations.
Authors don’t birth them and then guide them through life, letting them form their own theories and build an understanding of the universe through empirical trial and error. Hell no. We force their beliefs onto them without even asking, telling them what they’re passionate about, what they think about certain philosophical quandaries, and how they ultimately view the world.
We’re like Christianity, but with even crazier stories.
Therein lies a problem. We have to make these characters, and for them (and by extension our stories) to be good, they have to be believable. It is surprisingly difficult to completely flesh out a character, and new writers (like me) will often create Frankenstinian abominations where we meant to create maidens fair.
Stage 1: A Hero is born, sort of
In your planning phase, you might make a character biography. At this point, your character sounds awesome. He’s got a dark, messed up past, his beard is just the right length to be manly without being crazy, and his story arc makes Luke Skywalker’s seem like a lazy Sunday afternoon cruising around in an X-wing.
You imagine your characters looking and acting like this:
But when you re-read your scene/chapter/short story/cocktail napkin notes, your protagonist seems more like this:
I mean, it is kind of identifiable as some sort of humanoid, but there are some major problems here. One: his period-inappropriate tricorn hat is on fire. Two: He has two heads, one of which is completely black and has no face. Three: He has a sophisticated breathing apparatus on his chest, but also has a wooden leg. Four: His left arm is not attached to his body.
This is an extreme example, but my point remains. It is very difficult to properly build your character the first time around. He’s going to come out with conflicting motivations, bad dialogue, missing limbs, and possibly even a flaming hat.
But that’s OK! Now that you’ve got your scene, and see that your character clearly needs literary medical attention, you can work on fixing him. It is a habit of mine to dump as many details as possible into exposition, trying to give the character a voice and make him seem human. This isn’t a good idea. Learn from my mistake. The more details you have, the more there is to keep straight, and the more likely your character will seem like his brain doesn’t work correctly.
Stage 2: The Hero goes on a really boring journey
The great thing about word processors is that we can erase with reckless abandon. After revising and simplifying, you character might look like this:
He’s starting to resemble something that could possibly be confused with a human from a considerable distance!
The hat is still wrong, but at least it isn’t on fire. The parrot was inexplicably replaced by a pie. The technology in his chest still doesn’t match his wooden leg, but at least his arm is reattached.
Better. Closer. Warmer.
Still needs work, though. No one wants to read a story about a pirate/robot/pie shop owner. Do they?
Stage 3: The Hero descends into the underworld via a very, very long escalator
As you continue to revise, your character’s personality and thoughts may evolve requiring that you change major plot points or key exchanges with other characters. This sucks, but you have to do it. Trying to mash a scene or piece of backstory into the main narrative just because you like it normally doesn’t turn out very well. Re-write, re-hash, re-calculate, revise.
You’ll probably notice that your entire plot has changed along with your character. This is normal (for me at least). Run with it. Give in to your demons. Let the story do some of the work itself.
Something that often happens when you do a significant amount of rewriting is that completely new elements and characters get added to the story, which is simultaneously great and awful.
By now, your hero might look like this:
The good news is that your hero is a believable human at this point! Some of his wardrobe choices are still a bit odd, but at least now his actions are in line with his motivations, and his dialogue is setting appropriate.
The bad news is that you can’t see how sweet he is becoming, because you’ve added vertically challenged aliens and sharpshooter monkeys who distract from your main hero. Supporting characters should do just that: support. They don’t need to be as in-focus as your protagonist, so feel free to cut back on them if they seem to be carrying too much word-weight.
Stage 4: The Hero returns and brought cheap, crappy souvenirs for everyone
By now, you’re sick of revising. But revising is like running; you can’t have ripped, washboard abs if you don’t do the cardio.
As you’ve pared and simplified, your hero becomes someone readers can relate to, because he’s not a bloated ideal or a hollow husk. He’s got skills and flaws, and all kinds of interesting history that lends to his being a character people attach themselves to. He might not be a Jamie Lannister or a Muad’dib, but he’s a certifiable human being.
Well done! You’ve accomplished the hardest part of characterization: making your reader want to read because your hero is innately interesting without being archetypal.
Your finished product may look something like this:
He’s not flashy, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s complete, recognizable, relatable, and lovable (or hateable).
Moral of the story: Revise until you want to vomit. Then go vomit and revise some more. It is an idealistic pipe dream to expect your work to come out perfectly in one draft, so expel that from your mind now. Keep rewriting until you understand why your first few attempts at characterization failed so badly, so you can avoid those same mistakes in the future.
Rewriting counts as writing, so don’t feel like you’re not writing just because you’re revising. Yea. That makes sense.