When Your Editor Says a Character Isn’t Stepping Up to the Plate, What Do You Do?

by Edie Hemingway,
Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Most likely this is something you’re not expecting.  You’ve finished your book, you’ve already revised and made it the best it can be, AND you’ve found an editor who likes it.  BUT your editor says,  “One of your characters is not stepping up to the plate.  Either make him/her more important or remove him.”

What do you do?

  1. Trust your editor to know.  She’s in this position because she’s earned her place there, knows what sells, knows the market, has worked with numerous authors, and wants one who is willing to listen and make changes, if necessary.
  2. Ask yourself:
    • “Am I emotionally invested in this character?”  In my case, the answer was yes.  Drew represented my brother in the autobiographical opening of my novel, and I am very close to him.  Cutting Drew out was like cutting my brother out of my life.  Fortunately, I had a week to come to terms with this idea before speaking to my editor by phone, and I managed to work through the emotional issue beforehand.
    • “What would happen if I made this character stronger?  What changes would I have to make to strengthen him/her?”  In my case, I decided a stronger Drew would weaken Annie (my POV character) and would lessen her relationship with Miss Eliza.
    • “What would happen if I removed this character from the story?”  In my case, removing Drew would mean Annie was an only child, thus making the loss of the baby sister even more poignant.
    • If you decide to make the character stronger, I suggest looking at all aspects of character development.  Also, look carefully at your plot to decide how this character can take a more active role.
    • If you decide to remove your character, can you do it without impact to the story?  If not (which is most likely the case), you must determine what plot points the character drives and decide which other character will take over those plot points.  In my case, there were a number of scenes in the latter half of the book in which Drew played important roles.  Bobby Miller, the neighbor boy, was the logical character to take over these roles, thus making him a stronger, more active character and adding more of a boy/girl crush relationship, which would add a new dimension to the story.

Ripple Effects…

Obviously, removing a character does not mean only removing his/her name wherever it appears.  Unless the character is very minor, there can be far reaching ripple effects.  How do you start the process?

  1. Read through the manuscript carefully and highlight every place he/she appears, is mentioned, thought about, or is actively involved in dialogue and scene.  In my case, Drew appeared, or was mentioned, on 81 out of 186 pages.
  2. Once you decide which character will assume the plot points of the removed character, you must also read through the manuscript and highlight every place this improved/stronger character is mentioned or appears.  How will the changes affect each of these scenes and will more scenes be needed?
  3. Remember, changing the improved/stronger character at the beginning will cause ripple effects throughout.  He/she will not be perceived the same way in later scenes.  It’s necessary to work through the manuscript in a page-by -page manner to make the changes.  Don’t just jump in and out of the pages where he/she previously appeared, or you run the risk of missing something and losing character consistency.
  4. Along the way, ask yourself what other opportunities are available to enlarge or increase the importance of this new and improved character.  In my case, I had to add a reason why Annie is so drawn to the Millers’ large family.  I also increased the Miller family’s importance and impact on the mountain community, as well as their knowledge of the mysterious Miss Eliza’s past.  Bobby and Annie already had a point of conflict in the story, but because of his new importance in the climax and resolution, he and Annie had to resolve their personal conflict earlier in the plot.  In other words, the interaction of these two characters helped drive the plot sequence and changes.

How can you avoid these last minute revisions?

After completing your first draft and when you’re ready to begin the revision process, ask yourself:

  1. Is there a character who is unnecessary? …who does not drive the plot forward?  …who comes in after the inciting event?  …who simply is not doing enough?
  2. Can I combine two characters to make one stronger/better character?
  3. How emotionally invested am I in each of my characters?

Finally, be prepared for what this new awakening of character may do…

such as triggering yet another layer of revision.

In my case after removing Drew from my story, I was inspired to change my      POV character’s third person voice to first person.

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