It’s officially December! In the spirit of giving, I’ve decided to do a weekly blog post with revision hints and tips that I’ve learned throughout the Pitch Wars process. Some things I discovered while working with my CP and beta readers, others (and let’s be honest, most) I learned from my talented mentor.
So while cooler weather is keeping us indoors, let’s break out the computers and hunker down to make sure our revisions are in tip-top shape. This week, we’ll start with something basic: character sheets.
Obvious disclaimer is obvious: I’m not a guru for all things writing, so feel free to take or leave my advice. My experience could be different than yours, and not all advice is applicable to every piece of work. No matter what, follow your gut and do what’s best for your book.
Ahhh, character sheets. I’ll be honest — prior to working with Layla, I’d never used a character sheet before. I’d always kept a spare document open as I worked through my MS so I could take note of character descriptions, personality traits, habits, etc. But that was about the extent of my note-taking, and it all started because I was scared I’d accidentally change my MC’s eye color somewhere down the line.
Now, with fresh character sheets in hand, I don’t know how I ever survived without them. There are plenty out there to choose from (my mentor sent me one, but you can do a quick Google search or head over to Writer’s Digest for one), but in general you want something that highlights more than your characters’ swoony looks. Internal conflict. External conflict. Habits/mannerisms. You want to be able to answer, “Why is this character behaving that way?” at any given point in your novel.
In my experience, a good character sheet will make you do one of three things (let’s pretend we’re doing our MC for ease):
- Smile. Your character sheet and your MC totally match up. Do a happy dance. The conflict is evident, it was easy for you to pinpoint, and it’s clear in your writing. Go you.
- Scratch your head. Your character sheet is blank in several areas. You can’t seem to determine conflict for your MC. You’ve written a beautiful character, but you’re not really sure why she’s acting the way she is. She might be a little two-dimensional. Head back to the drawing board and see where you can round her out.
- Curse. Your character sheet and your MC hardly match up. What you had envisioned for her isn’t present in your story. Either she’s a completely different person, or she doesn’t stay true to your original plans (my characters like to develop minds of their own, so I feel you here). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but rework as necessary and decide which version suits your book best.
Personally, I think possibility two is quite common. For me, my MC was developed enough to stand on her own, but a secondary character of mine left me (and my mentor) wondering, “What’s his/her deal?” Most of the time, we don’t want that. Unless you’re a pro at writing the next Little Finger, we need to have some idea of what your character’s intentions are.
Somewhat related to character sheets, mannerisms are common actions/reactions/habits your characters have/do. Character sheets might lead you to discover that your main character has a fairly consistent habit of eye rolling. Habits are fine — they make the character in question feel real, assuming the reaction/emotion fits the scenario.
HOWEVER, once you have outlined said habits, for the love all that is holy, do a search in your manuscript.
At some point or another, we all fall prey to our own habits. Ruts are easy to create, and we often don’t even realize we’re in them until someone else points it out.
Guess how many instances of moving eyebrows I had? Way. Too. Many. Honestly, I can’t even remember. Somewhere in the 80s or 90s. I can probably go back through my edit letter for an exact number, but I can tell you that it was an obscene amount.
There are so many things that express frustration:
- Tense/tightening facial structures, stance or body parts (OTHER THAN EYEBROWS)
- Gripping/grasping/flexing hands
- Lips pressed into thin lines
- Clipped speech or gait
- Knotting fingers in the hair
- Pressing palms against the forehead
- Jutted chin
- … and so much more.
If you’re struggling to come up with alternatives, grab a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus. It’s well worth the five bucks. With the electronic version, you can keep it open while writing and search by emotion (i.e., anger, love, happiness, etc.). You’ll be surprised what you can use — and what you probably already know, but sometimes need a gentle reminder — as a substitute.
Bonus thought: Come up with something unique to your character that he or she does to express an emotion. Maybe my bracelet-wearing MC twists her jewelry subconsciously when anxious. You don’t always have to use general or accepted mannerisms — use something that reads true to your character.
That’s it for now, peeps. Check back next Friday for part two in my revision series where I’ll talk about filler and filter words that tend to crop up when writing. Happy editing!