“Throw out the visual garbage. It’s stinking up your manuscript!”


This is part 3 of my series, How to write a fantasy novel.

As with all novels, you have a Main Character (MC) and what I like to call minions – secondary characters who help or hinder your MC’s movement forward.  Even though you’re writing fiction, these characters need to be fleshed out, well-rounded and most importantly…real.

There are several things to think about before writing.  Whose view point are you going to write from?  Is it going to be 1st, 2nd or 3rd person?  Is your MC a male or female?

For me, I know instantly whether my MC is male or female.  I can hear the voice in my head.  I also know if the character is young or old and I have an idea of the setting.  These concepts, however, are just the framework.  I need to find and build the substance, the interior. This can prove to be challenging.

I know in my earlier post I talked about outlining; however, I’m not a huge outliner.  I tend to formulate my ideas and plot, do a one or two sentence ‘outline’ of where I’d like to see the story go in each chapter, but for the most part I sit down and write.  When I write short stories, this seems to work ok. My characters come alive and they take me on wild journeys.  Revisions are   easier to work through, probably because the stories are less than 10k words.  Novels on the other hand…not so much.

I thought I had really good character development with my novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King (“Dragon King”), until I submitted it to a publisher.  Man, was I in for an awakening.  Here are some of the line comments:

“Terms such as the one in bold portray the character as significantly older than 15.”

“He’s [David] been portrayed as a bit of a spoiled rich boy. We’re not lead to feel any compassion for him at all. It’s important in the opener to give us as much a feel for the truth of the character as possible.”

[after the MC uses the word ‘darn’] – “Later, David does swear, and the mix up of this type of language and the latter makes him feel much younger than 15.”

Obviously, my character needed work.  He was inconsistent.  He wasn’t fleshed out enough and he wasn’t likeable.  Back to the drawing board I went.  David is now 17 and the language fits much better, and, according to beta readers, he’s much more likeable from the beginning.  The readers are now invested, but it didn’t happen by simply re-writing.  I followed the advice of many famous authors.  I created character sketches and profiles.

What does one put in a character sketch?  Anything you can think of.  You have to know your characters inside out and upside down even though you may never tell your readers half of it.  What does (s)he do during the day?  What does (s)he do for fun?  Who is his/her best friend?  What color eyes does (s)he have?  What are the character traits?  What toothpaste does (s)he use?  Is (s)he an ice cream or cereal junkie?  I found, for me, doing a character sketch helped out a lot.  I didn’t do this for all my characters, only the top four – David, Charlotte, Eric and Trog.  I found it easier to pit them against each other as well as have them support each other once I knew their strengths and flaws.  You can read David’s and Charlotte’s character sketches here and here.

Another thing I learned that can be a death sentence for your manuscript is focusing on details too much and not on the plot.  When I wrote my first draft of Dragon King, I thought it was important the reader know what color eyes my characters had, their hair color, their size and what sort of clothes they wore.  I thought it got the reader into the scene, gave them visuals.  After all, when you meet someone for the first time, you notice things like that, right?  Unfortunately for me, it took an editor to set me straight.  She wrote on my manuscript in big red letters, “Throw out the visual garbage. It’s stinking up your manuscript.”  Throughout the 367 pages, she’d crossed through the extraneous descriptions, both related to character and setting, that needed to go.  It was painful to see my manuscript bleeding profusely, but I have to admit…she was right.

Something else she explained to me was to make sure the character’s personality traits or life events mentioned define our characters.  These things must move our characters forward.  They must have some sort of role in changing who they are.  To quote:

“Your characters must grow.  They must be different in the end of your novel than they were in the beginning.  Something significant needs to occur so the characters learn more about themselves and each other.  Find your character’s weakest trait, his worst nightmare, and focus on making his every action a step to overcoming that issue.  Make me want to help him.  Make me want to reach into the story and give him what he needs to succeed.  When you can do that, you know you’ve written a well-loved, believable character.”

I’m still working on that piece of advice.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about developing your villains.  They’re not as nasty as you think they are.  They only seem that way.

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9 thoughts on ““Throw out the visual garbage. It’s stinking up your manuscript!”

  1. Developing a character from beginning to end is very hard, because as a storyteller, there is so much more you have to (and want to) do.

    But we need to remember that the character is part of the journey. They need to “go somewhere” on the inside as well as on the outside.

    The trick is, for them to make that inner journey without the reader even realizing it. It needs to seem natural, and nothing is forced. It needs to “flow: and feel 100% right.

    THAT is the special gift of the story teller.

    I can’t wait to see where David “goes”

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  2. Awesome post, Jenny – thanks so much for sharing, and for the insights that will help us all become better writers! Much appreciated! 🙂 xox

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  3. You’re right, Jenny, it is important to know who your characters are, know them inside and out. When my fantasy story was ‘critiqued’, my writer’s group gave me this piece of advice: Every character should have a purpose for being there. When I wrote mine, I just thought it would be fun to have a giant, a dwarf, a fairy, etc come along for the ride, but after that comment, I really had to go back through my manuscript and re-evaluate each character and the reason(s) they were with my main character. If they couldn’t help propel the plot or help my MC, out they went, harsh as that may seem. 🙂

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