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Time to Edit Your First Draft

Very few books are just about a protagonist and the antagonist. Most novels have characters that support the primary characters and help add to the drama of the story. Who are these supporting characters and what is their function?

The SideKick

What sleuth in a mystery doesn’t need a friend or relative with access to inside information? This character is often called the sidekick, and is probably the most important supporting character in many genres.

The Tormentor

We spoke of the antagonist last week, and the tormentor is similar, but this person is different in that he or she is someone whom the protagonist spars but in some way often admires.

Conflict is the spice that makes characters come alive, and an adversary can cause the protagonist all kinds of interesting problems and complicate your story by throwing up roadblocks to the investigation.

In developing an adversary, remember it should be a character who’s positioned to thwart, annoy and generally get in your sleuth’s way. With an adversary in the story, the protagonist gets lots of opportunity to argue, struggle and in general show his mettle and ingenuity.

Fleshing out The Supporting Cast

A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.

Supporting characters come with baggage too so pick yours carefully. Think about what all this means to the story line. If your sidekick is married, what’s his/her role in all this. Does he/she get jealous if there is a sexy suspect? If your protagonist has children, not only do you need information about these children, but also about their caregivers. Do they have a nanny or do they go to day care? A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. Remember, if the antagonist has a dog, the dog needs to be walked twice a day which means that your antagonist will have to walk him regularly or hire a dog-walker.

Supporting characters give your character a life, but each one should also play a special role in the story. Supporting characters might start out as stereotypes: a devoted wife, a nagging mother-in-law, a bumbling assistant, a macho cop or a slimy lawyer. It’s OK to typecast supporting characters during the planning phase. When you get into the writing, if you want them to play bigger roles, you’ll want to push past the stereotype and flesh them out, turning them into complex characters who do things that surprise you—and, in turn, the reader.

Like subplots and backstories, you don’t want supporting characters to hog the spotlight. You don’t want bland, uninteresting characters either.

Naming Characters

We’ve discussed many aspects of character sketches within a character bible as well as various types of characters including the protagonist, the antagonist, the sidekick and the tormentor. One thing we haven’t yet used is naming characters.

Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.

Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality or appearance. Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too. Avoid the dull and boring as well as the weirdly exotic.

It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.

Create a list of names that you consider “keepers,” and add to it whenever you find a new one you like.

Walk-on Characters

Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, but not a big splash. It doesn’t matter that the character is tall or short, fat or thin, bald or long-haired. What matters is what he or she does. He delivers three lines of dialogue and gives the protagonist an all-important sym-card that moves the plot along.

A minor role is no place for a complex character. Don’t imbue one with a lot of mystery that your reader will expect you to explain. A name, a few quirky details, and a bit of action or dialogue are more effective than a long, drawn-out description in minor characters.

Remember that the world of your novel will also be full of walk-on characters who provide texture and realism. Each one may also have some small role in facilitating the plot, but for the most part, walk-on characters are there to make scenes feel authentic. When crafting your more important minor characters, don’t get carried away and forget that walk-ons should get no more than a sentence or two of introduction. They don’t need names, and a touch of description is plenty. Choose details that can be a kind of shorthand commentary on the neighborhood or context.

Used in this way, walk-ons remain as much elements of setting as they are characters—and that setting will be a fitting backdrop to help both your protagonist and your more important supporting characters stand out.

To Do This Week

Use this information that you have created about your characters and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas in character development, and fix those problems.


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Time to Edit Your First Draft

For the last several weeks we have been discussing the components of character sketches in general within a character bible. This week we are going to dig a little deeper into the most important characters in your story—the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is the main character in the book and the antagonist is the one who stands in the way of the protagonist from getting what he or she desires.

Novels typically follow the lead character, the protagonist, through the story events. This protagonist is acted on by other characters and events in the story and acts on those other characters and events in turn. Something out of the ordinary—an inciting event—moves the lead character from the status quo and into the drama of the story.

Something’s at stake for him, and the story revolves around his actions to resolve the problem(s) he faces.

The protagonist and antagonist have specific aims at the story’s start. They want something, or they want something to happen, or, even perhaps, they want something not to happen. Maybe they want to be left alone, want to just finish their day’s work and not be bothered by anyone. Maybe they want to hide from the world, from a friend, or maybe from an enemy.

But once a story begins, both your protagonist and antagonist have their lives interrupted by others or by events beyond their control. They’re pulled into a mission or quest or an adventure they hadn’t planned to have happen.

By the end of the story, their goals have changed.

Your protagonist now has new goals, goals that push and pull him through your story, that logically get him from scene to scene and meeting characters who either help or hinder him.

Your Antagonist

A protagonist is probably the easiest character to define because everything about the story revolves around this character, however, many beginning authors have difficulty creating good antagonists. That is why we are going to focus most of this blog on the antagonist.

The antagonist is the main character who stands between the protagonist and his way. This person is considered the villain but is not necessarily evil. This character’s goal is in direct conflict with the protagonist’s goal.

The antagonist should not exist merely to obstruct the protagonist. He or she should be equal in strength to your protagonist and be able to put up a good fight. The best type of antagonist is someone already in the protagonist’s life. This character’s motive for opposing the protagonist must be as strong and logical as the hero’s reason for opposing the antagonist. The antagonist does not need to have negative motives. It could be that if the roles are reversed, the villain could be the protagonist. In addition, the antagonist must believe that his motives are valid, and his actions are justified.

How to Create a Strong Antagonist

A strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something, something evil. In plot-driven novels an event triggers his or her actions. In character-driven novels this person might be trying to hurt the protagonist in some way.

The antagonist has personal desires. He might be a murderer, a greedy person, someone who enjoys violence or have a personal demon. He or she won’t just wake up one morning and decide to be evil for the fun of it. The antagonist wants something and is determined that his or her plan is the best course of action to get it. He may, however, simply be the protagonist’s rival.

The antagonist must be highly motivated to act. The more plausible you make these motivations, the deeper your villain. For character-driven novels, the antagonist might are motivated as intently as the protagonist is.

The antagonist might be trying to avoid something. He needs to have something at stake as well. Failure should mean more than just failing in the plan. Nasty consequences must exist.

There will be consequences if she doesn’t succeed. She might be the cautionary tale if the antagonist took a darker path or gave in to temptation. It is important that the antagonist has a good reason for his lofty goals. Being evil for the sake of evil risks having a paper doll villain that isn’t scary or interesting.

Don’t make your antagonist fall for the same old traps again and again. Better to have a strong villain who adapts his or her plan based on what the protagonist is doing. This forces the protagonist to grow, always staying one step ahead. In a character-driven novel, the protagonist might rationalize following a destructive path.

Give your antagonist positive traits as well as negative ones. This helps keep the villain from always acting as a villain, but as a more complex and understandable person. In addition, the antagonist must also be flawed in relatable ways. Human weakness is always something that readers can relate.

Readers relate to human weakness. If your antagonist has flaws that tap into the human side of her (even if she’s not human) then she becomes more real and readers can see her side of the story.

A good antagonist has secrets. He or she is afraid that people will find out certain things because the antagonist is up to no good. Sometimes exposing those secrets also expose weaknesses or flaws that she doesn’t want anyone else to see.

The antagonist must be an obstacle to the protagonist and therefore must cross paths (and swords) with the protagonist and does it often. However, this does not have to be deliberate.

Types of Antagonists

Many types of antagonists exist. Sometimes the antagonist starts out as a close ally. Characters who oppose your main character’s goals aren’t necessarily ‘bad’, yet they serve a primary function: Standing between another character and their destiny.

Five Types of Antagonists

The malevolent villain is the villain from common fantasy genres, but are in many different stories. This antagonist has an appetite for destruction. However this type of villain has pitfalls because villains who are evil for evil’s sake often lack development and motivations that make characters believable.

To make these characters realistic, brainstorm reasons that this character would be evil.

Give them vulnerabilities or weaknesses. These don’t have to be emotional or physical. They could be strategic. For example, a villain who surrounds themselves with greedy henchmen is more vulnerable to betrayal if their supporters are easily swayed by material rewards

The ally-antagonist is an ally turned antagonist.

The ally-antagonist is a useful character because they show how easy it is for a ‘good’ character to make a regrettable choice

When writing an ally-antagonist, remember to Show the flaws in their personality that explain their behavior. Give them compelling motivations for their choices. Ally-antagonists add shades of grey in the ‘black and white’ of ‘good vs evil’. They show us how easily people can take destructive paths that result in negative outcomes. Some also refer to this type of antagonist as a ‘hero antagonist’ since they may be motivated by noble ideals. The nobility or virtue of this underlying wish makes his actions more tragic, since it appears his intentions are good.

The interfering authority figure stands between a primary character and his or her main goals.

An interfering authority figure is thus useful for creating challenges and complications that make life harder for your protagonist.

• This antagonist’s broader story role could be to show something about the nature of power and authority in your book’s society.

• This antagonist could demonstrate cultural values or practices that stand between your character and their goals

• The interfering authority antagonist can make selfish or value-driven choices that get in your protagonist’s way.

• A secondary antagonist could include authority antagonists like border patrol officers or power-drunk bureaucrats who delay characters.

The force of nature is one of the few types of antagonists that don’t need a clear motivation. This type of antagonist doesn’t have to have a character ARC or backstory explaining how they became corrupt You can vary this type of antagonist to create tension and unpredictability. In addition you can intensify the opposition. For instance, you can have an occasional surprise that is opposite. For instance, in Titanic, there was a fire on the ship that was sinking. Next, you’ll want to make the danger real. This will induce fear and repercussions. For the most tension and opposition, you’ll want this opponent to be at its worst self.

The inner saboteur is a story where the character’s main struggle is within himself. In this case the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person.

The danger of this type of antagonistic situation is that your character’s thoughts could dominate the narration, without much exchange with others.

If your character’s main opponent is his own self, remember to show destructive behavior in action. Think about the origins of their self-destructive choices. What motivated your character originally to embark on a path of self-destruction? You’ll also want to Include secondary antagonists who add external conflict to the mix

Many types of antagonists exist that bring gripping conflict and opposition to a story.

Whichever type you create, make sure to characterize each opponent with as much thought as you would your protagonist.

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Characters are the beings, the actors, of story. They can be human, animal, mechanical, or any combination of any of the above. Readers like character in which they can relate.

Last week, you learned about how to start a character bible by determining your character’s physical appearance and personality and include them in your books character bible. This week you’re going to dig deeper into your characters’ backstory and his or her wants and goals.

What is Your Character’s Baggage?

Everyone comes into a relationship with some sort of baggage so do characters. They can’t simply be dropped into a story, they must come from somewhere. We all have a past and if we want our characters to seem real, they also have a history that affects why they act as they do now.

Remember your backstory is not your main story, so don’t let it dominate it. Keep this at the forefront of your mind as you continue to edit the story that you are trying to tell.

Use your backstory to explain your character’s development and to help raise the stakes. We are all products of nature and nurture. For better or for worse, our genetics and significant events mold us throughout our lives. A bad childhood, an abusive relationship, a lost love, an inspiring mentor, a challenging event that made us or broke us, all create additional motivation and obstacles to our character’s success or failure.

A mouse phobia could be caused by an event that occurred in childhood which then affects an event during the story that the protagonist must overcome.

Relate Backstory to Your Story ARC

Don’t make the backstory more interesting than the main story arc. If your backstory starts to take over your main plot, you may be telling the wrong story. Your beta readers or editor may pick up on this and may be able to help you determine how you allowed your backstory to become too central to your story.

Characters also have a progressive arc and the backstory is part of it. The backstory demonstrates how the character got to the beginning of the story, and then relates to how your character grows and changes over the course of your novel. This is especially true with the protagonist’s ARC. By giving your character trials that are particularly significant in terms of the character’s personal psychology and having the character successfully overcome the trial, the reader will see the logical progression in that character’s ARC.

Including Backstory in Your Novel

Avoid making your backstory too obvious. Introduce the information so your reader doesn’t feel jolted into realizing that you’re filling them in on what happened in the past but make it as a logical and reasonable introduction to the information.

Don’t just include backstory for the sake of filling up space either. Use backstory to explain why something happened. Dropping a block of information into it brings the story to a halt. Make it seem a natural. An incident in the story could be a way for the character to relate the current incident with an incident from his or her past.

A technique used in many old movies is to use diaries, journals, newspaper clippings or other secondary sources to give the backstory. You can do this even if your protagonist is reluctant to think about this backstory consciously, but you can let the reader in on the secret.

Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story. Don’t think that you have to include all the character’s backstory verbatim. You shouldn’t dump all the character’s backstory into your novel. There is an art to including the right about of backstory to enhance your story. Backstory can be explained through dialogue and the way the character thinks or the way the character reacts to specific situations and people.

Flashbacks, Dream Sequences and Dialogue

Sometimes the reader needs to learn the backstory as quickly and efficiently as possible. When this is the case, ignore the “show, don’t tell” advice you’ve always heard and just tell the readers what they need to know in a sentence or two. Most of the time, however, back story can be made more interesting when dramatized. This can be done in a flashback, dream sequence or dialogue where one character describes an incident to another. Whatever the case, be sure to keep the dramatization as grounded and concrete as the rest of your story.

If you are dramatizing the backstory, have a natural trigger in the story for it. Don’t just have a character just start talking about something in his or her backstory. An incident or even a strong sensory impression like a smell or a song can be used to bring back the recollection.

Watch your language. If you are describing a flashback, write the first couple of sentences in past perfect tense to signal a shift to a more distant past for the reader. You can then settle back into past tense for the remainder of the flashback until you reach the end. At that point, past perfect tense can signal the end of the flashback. Another technique for showing the readers placing a dramatization at the begin or the end of a chapter.

Reveal bits of backstory little by little. You can even use this technique to create stronger suspense for your reader as they wait to learn more about a character’s mysterious past.

Give Your Characters Goals

Another essential component to add to your character bible is in identifying character goals.

A goal may be based on a promise or the result of a bet. It might be lofty or earthy.

Critical to the story are the protagonist’s (main character) goals (what he wants), motivation (why he’s going after what he wants), and conflict (conflict with himself, others, their goals, or something in the setting).

He is opposed or challenged by the antagonist, another character with goals and motivations of his own. Their conflict is one of the major drivers of the plot.

Main characters, both protagonist and antagonist, have friends who help them achieve their goals and prevent their opponent from reaching his. Additional characters can enhance the setting and create opportunities for even more conflict. The goals and motivations of these characters can also add depth to a story.

There may be much more to the pursuit of them than a character could ever imagine.

Character goals are character objectives. They are a place a character must reach for or get to, a task he must complete, an enemy or monster he must conquer.

The character desires something. If the desire is strong enough, the character will pursue the goal. If that desire is strong enough and the character is thwarted—especially by someone that the character doesn’t want to get the best of him or her. He or she will work even harder to achieve his or her goal.

The character’s goal may have cause him or her to ignore rules or laws. The character’s goals may push beyond accepted and acceptable behavior. These goals may be so strong that the character physically/mentally/spiritually ruining the character’s reputation.

Character goals move the novel forward. Without character goals, the story goes nowhere. Disorganized goals prove to be aimless and without direction. Without character goals, a novel has little purpose and have an incomplete structure.

He has goals that drive him, that allow him no respite because someone’s going to die if he doesn’t achieve them. If he fails, someone’s going to hate him forever, or greatly disappointed. Perhaps he will disappoint himself, or he’ll let somebody down.

Types of Character Goals

Your main character’s goal may be an immediate gratification goal, a save-the-world goal, or a private-self goal.

The short-term immediate gratification goals are important to move a story from scene to scene, but for a book, your character needs long term goals. Easy goals or short-term goals may come into play for a scene or for several chapters (think subplots), but characters need potent long-term goals to get them through everything thrown at them.

The saving the world goal is ideal for some genre novels. Your protagonist might literally save the world. However, not all save-the-world goals are literally about saving the world. These are simply external goals that a character reaches for outside himself and saves his little world in some way.

In addition to saving the world, save the world goals includes things like: save the princess, recover a treasure, discover a new world where mankind can make a fresh start, destroy the enemy, uncover the plot, diffuse the bomb, neutralize the pathogen, identify the murderer, get a wife back, graduate from college, or complete a masterpiece.

Protecting the self, the third goal type, would work well for a literary novel. Here, the protagonist might have to discover who he is, or try to hide his nature from others to protect himself from some sort of harm. He may try to protect the status quo and not rock the boat. Perhaps he takes the other extreme and decided to shake things up so that he can discover who he is and where he’s from. This protecting-the self is an internal goal and is often much more personal than the external kind.

Personal or internal goals: prove himself, to not be found wanting, be a success, persevere, show himself a better man than his father (or better than his father’s predictions), succeed or die trying, make it one more day, not kill himself, do it alone, ask for help, show himself a friend, love unconditionally, love for the first time.

You could also use both saving the world and self-protecting goals. This set up creates a powerful story and riveting characters. You could drive him relentlessly, playing the goals off each other so he has no choice but to succeed, no option to turn back.

Coming Up

Next week we’ll dig a little deeper into the most important characters in your story—the protagonist and the antagonist.

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Time to Edit Your First Draft

Last month, we went over Story ARCs using them to assess the plots both the main plot and subplots of your novel. This month we’ll be switching gears and looking at the characters in your novel. This week we’ll begin our discussion about characters.

Effective sub-lots create layers and depth, however, characters with complex lives and histories and competing goals create layers and depth Without fleshed-out characters, fiction seems flat. Individual scenes may seem exciting, but there’s no emotion or involvement in the scene. The reader has no one with which to relate. Without well-developed characters, the reader cannot feel emotion for a character he doesn’t know, one he doesn’t care about. The reader can’t care about an under-developed character who’s nothing more than a stick figure without thought, dreams, goals or motivations. As the writer, you are responsible for creating characters that connect with the reader.

Develop a Character Bible

Have you ever read a book and realized that the writer has changed some aspect of a specific character’s life? Perhaps the character’s eye color had changed from blue to brown or perhaps a character born in New Jersey was now from Chicago. A character bible can help prevent this kind of mistake from happening in your book.

The way to avoid this type of mistake in characterization is to create character sketches in a character bible.

A character bible is a collection of facts or sketches about each specific character. This collection of character sketches includes the character’s physical characteristics If noted changes occur in the physical appearance of the character prior to or during the novel, it is important to include those changes. A character bible is especially important if you are going to use these characters in an ongoing series. You’ll want to keep your characters consistent from one book to the next. If you don’t, your readers will notice.

It is, very important to keep the character’s appearance consistent throughout your novel. Your character’s physical characteristics like hair color, height, weight, and eye color need to remain consistent. In addition, other vital statistics like the character’s age and marital status are also important.

Character Tags

Ethnic variations and speech patterns also need to be accounted to each character as well as character tags.

A character tag is a repetitive verbal device used to identify a character in the mind of the reader. More than a simple description, a character tag calls to mind aspects of the character’s personality and uniqueness. Character tags may be drawn from any aspect of the character’s appearance or behavior such as voice, gestures, body carriage, dialect and speech mannerisms, hair, type of clothing he/she wears, scent, and mental state.

Some characters in a novel may appear only a few times, but the most minor character needs a character tag or two to make the character more memorable.

Novel Character Personality

It helps to flesh out a character’s personality as well. To dig deeper into character personalities, it helps to get to understand various personality times. One way is through using the sixteen personality types used in Myers-Brigs Personality assessments. Another is to use the personalities of the various zodiac signs.

Based on one or a combination of both the Myers-Brig Personality assessment and the personalities of the signs of the zodiac, you then ask questions of the character to determine more about his or her individual personality and to discover the character’s hidden history and qualities. You can use the questions from my free Novel Editing Check List that I’ve created (get the list free by clicking here) or you can make up your own.

Ask Questions About Your Characters

Use the questions—and your character’s answers—as the basis for creating story situations and other characters that bring out the more colorful or emotional sides of your main characters.

If you want one character to get under the skin of another, to push his buttons again and again until that second character simply must explode in reaction, then you must know that character even better than the first character does. You must design the elements that set a character up to have his buttons pushed. You must develop and use triggers that will make characters react to stimuli specifically designed to do just that.

This kind of knowledge is especially needed in romantic novels so that the sparks that fly between the female and male leads appear genuine. When you’ve connected with the characters’ emotional triggers in your writing, your reader will also feel those emotional triggers and empathize with your characters.

This knowledge can also help you design both action and reaction. Coming up with such triggers on your own can be difficult when you’re deep into a character’s story, so having the character bible available with each character’s appearance and personality available will help remind you of details about your characters. A well-developed character personality profile can also help determine what a specific character is likely to do when presented with an obstacle to that character’s goal. For instance, is this character likely to run from the problem or stand up and fight? If he or she fails once, is he or she likely to give up?

Create Scenarios

When you know your characters, you can devise situations that make those characters respond. And respond at different levels of intensity, levels appropriate to the stimulus and to the moment in the story and in ways that will increase conflict slowly or blow it through the roof.

Use your questions (and the answers) to design characters and story events that feed off one another, that connect and drive the story.

Once you get to know your characters, you’ll be able to write more convincing and enthralling fiction. You’ll be able to manipulate all the characters and story events and bring out the best and the worst in them.

Looking Forward to Next Week

You’ve got a good start in developing your character with getting to know your characters by getting to know their appearances and personality, but you’re just starting to get to know your characters. Next, you’ll determine your characters’ own personal back stories and goals. That will be the subject of next week’s post.

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