Editing Question: How well do you know your main character?
If I asked you to describe your best friend to me, what would you say? Would you describe their physical appearance? Maybe their personality? Would you tell me what they did for a living? Would you share what you know about their family (and their family life)? What about their hopes and dreams–and the flip side of that, their losses and disappointments?
Would you be able to tell me what their home looks like and why they chose not only that particular place to live, but why they chose to decorate it–or chose not to decorate it–the way they did? Could you tell me what kind of car they drive, or if they’re afraid to drive, or if they’re environmentally conscious and so only ride a bike or the bus in an effort to shrink their carbon footprint?
Would you share with me how they dress–when they go to work, go out with you, go out with their significant other–or on a first date? How do they spend their downtime? Do they have downtime? How’s their health?
I hope that you know your best friend well enough that you can answer all of these questions and then some.
As your friendly neighborhood editor, I hope that you can also answer every single one of these questions about your main character–and most, if not all, your supporting characters–in your work in progress. If you don’t know your MC and their cast this well, you need to get your rear back to the drawing table.
Think about your best friend and think about someone else you know pretty well. Then create a fictional scenario and set both of them within that scenario. For instance, say they’re at a restaurant or a bar, they go into the restroom, and they find a wallet in there that someone else has left behind. How would they handle that situation? Would they simply take it up to the manager and be done with it? Would they open it up, look at the ID, and see if they could find the person on their own? Would they count the money in it first? Would they think–even for a minute–about keeping the money and just ditching the wallet?
See how many different places that little scene could go? And the scenes that follow depend solely on the kinds of people your friends are.
That’s why you need to know your MC and their cast that well. You are going to create a story, and you’re going to develop plot points within that story. But your characters need to behave within that story in ways that are authentic to the people they are. If you don’t know who they are as people, you’ll have a hard time allowing them to react authentically.
(And yes, they can behave in ways that are out of character for them. But in order for the reader to understand they’re acting out of character–and to go along with them and believe that they would act out of character in that situation and for that particular reason–the reader has to know who they are at their core.)
The reader can’t know them well if you don’t know them well.
As your editor, part of my job is to help you with character development, to keep an eye on what your cast is doing and saying and thinking. Usually, your MC grows throughout the story, so we want to make sure that growth is happening in a way that rings true for who you’ve taught us they are, as a person. I really like that part of the editing process, but we have to have a starting point.
When you come to me, you can’t bring me a cast of stick figures. They need to have some flesh on their bones. They need to have blood running through their veins (unless they’re zombies or vampires). They need to feel real.
Got a question about character development? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Ready to begin the editing process? Send me an email at email@example.com and tell me how I can help. I’m looking forward to reading your work!