Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character

This month, let’s concentrate on an aspect of self-editing that writers spend little or no time examining as they go through each successive draft of their novel: character. The people who populate a novel should seem real to the author, and yet, readers often notice that characters are stereotypes—cardboard cutouts.

To explain the importance of knowing your characters well, let me use an example from the relationship between the famous editor Maxwell Perkins and the well-known author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby.

After reading the manuscript for The Great Gatsby, Perkins wrote a note to Fitzgerald about one of his characters, which read:

 “Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”

Last month we talked about how every scene should have intention, but so should every character. Characters need motive. They must seem credible in all they do, as though they truly exist—as if they live down the street.

Fitzgerald, no slacker when it came to building characters, reexamined Gatsby through the eyes of his famous editor and wrote a note back to Perkins:

“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”

To fulfill Gatsby’s intention, Fitzgerald needed to make him an enigmatic figure, but to accomplish his purpose, the author also needed to know Gatsby’s history to make him real.

A reader doesn’t need to know who Gatsby’s grandmother was, but Fitzgerald as the author should know if and how she shaped his character. Do you know your character’s history, or did you begin your novel with a vague sense of what kind of character needed to occupy a certain place in your plot?

My suggestion is to keep a notebook on every character, making notes throughout your writing on character development. As you self-edit, you can then look back at your record of their motives, history, and tone of voice to make their dialogue and actions consistent, intentional, and credible.

To make your characters come alive, remember they are more than the sum of their physical traits. Characters possess social, psychological, and spiritual uniqueness as well.


What method do you use to develop your characters?

14 Replies to “Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Character”

  1. Barbara, thank you for the great character development tips! Your suggestion portion is now on the Notepad on my iPhone for quick reference. If F.Scott Fitzgerald needed character development advice, surely so do I! Much thanks!

  2. I have a several pages long chart I fill out in varying depth for every character with a significant role. Sometimes a character pops up in the middle that I expected to be background who becomes important, then I need to stop and fill out a chart for them. THe more page time a character gets, the more in-depth the chart tends to be. It has details like mannerisms, family history, attitudes, personality, etc.

    The chart originally came from here: and I made some changes to make it work better for my sci-fi fantasy characters.

  3. This is something I noticed when I was editing and writing my current book. I wanted a villain, a good villain that people would at first like, come to loathe, and finally, when the series is finished, feel sorry for him, even though he really is dastardly. But I got lost a time or two (hey, isn’t that part of a song?) and had to regroup. I *needed* to know his story, so I interviewed him. And now he’s my favorite. Creeper. 😉
    Thanks for the call to action to know our characters intimately.

  4. Barbara,

    Thanks for the tips. I find it easier to model characters after actual people I know. Not completely, but certain aspects of them that stand out. That way I can actually ‘see’ them in motion–combining more than one person into one character. I am careful not to do anything too obvious that they would recognize, or others they may know.

  5. This post came at a perfect time. I’m having difficulties getting into the head of one of my characters and I’m starting to see why. Her background isn’t deep enough. Thanks so much.

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