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?