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The Red Pen: Taking care of your characters

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the seventh in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen in June, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.

You might wonder what there is left to do with your characters, once the novel is complete – surely you can’t edit them? Well, perhaps…

As you go over your novel there are some points you might want to consider in relation to your characters.

  • Language: if you’ve given a character an idiosyncratic way of speaking, have you been consistent and not also allowed other characters speak in exactly the same way? An author I work with gave a middle-aged man an annoying verbal quirk; it was humorous and pinpointed precisely the kind of person he was. Then half way through the novel, his wife started using that phrase too. She might (it’s easy to adopt the vocabulary of those we live with) – but the author needed to show he was aware of it and to use it in some way. It shouldn’t just be a mistake.
  • Background: revisit your notes on timelines – are they still working in relation to your characters? For example, are people the ages they should be at each stage in the narrative?
  • If you’ve signalled what a person looks like have you done that at an early enough stage? I edited a novel where an older man was suddenly described as having a moustache – about two thirds of the way through. This was disconcerting as my mental picture of him didn’t include a moustache! Of course it was fine for him to have one, but I needed to know that early in the story. Readers quickly create their own visions of what people look like.
  • Even minor characters should have a function in the narrative, however small. They might, for example:
  • Cause an accident/ trigger an event
  • Find a body – or become the body
  • Have an overheard conversation that affects your protagonist
  • They might be the one unchanging point in a protagonist’s life, even if they’re only the owner of the corner shop where they buy a pint of milk every day. Then one day they’re not behind the counter and… (you see how easy it is to start another story?)

Now and again, you may want to add something to strengthen a character. Before he sent out my first novel, my agent asked me to add a scene to show how an old man had felt about his daughter going missing many years ago. He wasn’t someone who appeared much in the novel, but enough for him to matter. It was the right thing to do: it made him suddenly much more of an individual, and deepened the long-lasting impact of the disappearance in the family’s life.

Even when you’ve finished your first draft, there can be someone who hasn’t quite come to life as you wanted them to. One way to tackle this is to imagine you are that person – write a short scene, or rewrite an existing scene, entirely from their point of view. You needn’t of course include that in the finished novel, but it does give them life. If it doesn’t and you struggle to do that, there might be a more serious problem with this character. That’s worth considering further.

There are even occasions when you might want to remove a character altogether. That can have huge implications, unless it’s someone who appears in one or two scenes and isn’t closely tied in to the plot. I removed a couple of characters who appeared only in the opening and closing chapters, and my novel was the better for it, though I admit to tucking the text away for another day. They were promising characters and they had their own story. It just wasn’t part of the one I happened to be writing!

I once advised an author to take out a character altogether – which was quite an ask. The character was a first person voice in the narrative and she had an affair with the protagonist. The trouble was, that whole section of the story was clichéd and seemed to belong in a different and much less literary novel. All credit to the author – after she’d thought about it she agreed, made considerable changes and ended up with a much stronger novel. It’s harder to stand back from your own work and make such a radical decision – especially if it involves major structural change. Something in you naturally resists all the extra work!

However, on the whole, by the time you’ve finished writing a novel, your characters are fixed and there won’t be much about them you’ll want to change: if the novel works, they are leading the action, they’re believable and the reader will love or hate them – whichever you intend. Sometimes, of course, they have a different view of them from your intention – I’ve had readers tell me a character behaved appallingly when I felt quite forgiving of his faults! Readers don’t always read the novel you think you’ve written.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth