Revision stage part two: main characters



In last week’s post, I discussed revising the exposition, climax, and denouement in your book. It was a bit broad of a topic, but all future posts will grab bits from the first post and specify a little more. This week, the second step involves your characters. I said I was going to discuss main characters, secondary characters, and tertiary characters, but then I typed the post. It was quite long, so I’m separating them so I can elaborate a bit more.

NOTE: Part three will not publish until January 7, 2o17 due to the holiday season. I don’t always post these notifications in my blog, so please follow me on Facebook for additional notifications about my blog, my editing, and more here.

Your characters and your plot are what drive the story. Without a character, you don’t have a story. They are lives you create for others to live. You need them to be believable. I’ve written an article about creating believable characters here.

When you start writing, keeping an outline can help, but when you finish writing, especially if you didn’t outline your character, you’ll go back and find small gaps where your character changed in the book later but wasn’t meant to or where your character acted differently toward the beginning because you weren’t sure who they were, exactly.

Some writers prefer to let their characters iron themselves out, and while that’s generally okay, it means you have a bit more work for yourself when you revise.

Main character

I want to say this first: This topic is huge, and it’s difficult to cover everything with every genre in mind. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask, either in the comments or directly. I’m covering a lot here, so it’s not possible to cover everything.

Your main character depends on your ability to create a living person with a past, present, and future. If any character needed an outline most, it’s this one.

Your main character, or MC, is one of the people (or creatures) your reader will need to empathize with most. This isn’t always the case, but this is the one that requires most of your effort.

I’m writing nonfiction. Does any of this apply to me?

This does, but you’ll have to think of it a bit differently. If you’re writing an inspirational or memoir, this definitely applies. Whatever your experiences and whatever circumstances you overcome in your story, you must bring out emotion. When you read the below tips, apply this to your story as needed, but your main goal is not to bring out the plot as much as it is bringing out yourself. Use your experiences and your past to contribute to the person you are at the beginning of the story, and use what happens in your story to contribute to who you are at the end. Or, what you learn. Don’t anything back. That’s why you’re writing this story, right?

What does my main character need throughout the story?

Consistency. Make sure you can combine all your character has learned, experienced, said, done, thought, wanted, and hated. What conflicts? For example, I wrote a main character who had no faith in her abilities, but she had faith in her sister’s. She depended on her sister’s strength, but I meant for her sister to be insecure about herself, too. That didn’t work out well because it doesn’t make sense to look up to someone who shows fear in themselves like you do. It didn’t structure the reason for their actions and personalities properly. I (will) have to go back and revise their roots. They need to have a strong foundation and reason to be who they are.

Give them back story.

You don’t ever have to include someone’s back story unless it’s necessary. I know, that doesn’t really make sense. But, back story is as important outside the story as it is inside the story. Remember this:

“You can excuse any action if you don’t know a reason for which it would not occur.”

Make sense? Ever meet a stranger who acts rotten, but you just accept that’s who they are? Well, what if they did something nice? Then, perhaps, you might think they have a soft side you don’t know about. Well, you don’t know their back story, so it’s easy to excuse everything they do as normal for them. That’s why it’s easy to be judgemental. You don’t know that person’s story. If you killed someone, you might be able to free yourself of guilt (maybe) depending on the circumstances. If anyone else you didn’t know, however, killed someone for the same reason, the situation would likely be a bit different in your eyes. They would seem more evil than you would think of yourself.

So, back story. Give one to your character so you, the writer, don’t excuse actions and thoughts and words for them. Your job is to make sure your reader reads these things and understands that the MC does the because that’s who they are. They don’t have to know the back story to know these things. Sometimes, they do. But, you’ll know the answer to that question for your story.

Look for those inconsistencies. Highlight all actions and dialogue and reactions and interactions and everything else, and determine whether it fits the map you’ve drawn out for your character.

What has your character learned? How have they progressed? Or, were they meant to?

In most stories, characters experience change. They are either the reason for change because of who they are or they do change because of what they learn. Which one happened in your story? Or, did both happen? Make sure that shows in writing. Make sure your main character didn’t suddenly figure out he loved the child he had kidnapped and wanted to get her home. His feelings have to progress. They start, they sprout, then they bloom.

Your main character’s change will not happen immediately. And, you might want to consider the plausibility of such change over the course of whatever time your story takes place in. For example, your main character will not learn overnight that he loves the wife he has been cheating on so much, that after five years of cheating, he’s finally done and ready to commit. I don’t care if they’re locked in a car trunk. Realistically, it takes more time. So, think about the span of time presented in the story.

Now, there are more things to look at with your main character, and I might add to this post over time, but these things are most important. You’ll likely discover smaller things while you’re looking for these. Is your head spinning yet? This kind of stuff is what we editors have to look for all the time. 😉

What if my story has more than one main character?

Some people will say this isn’t possible, but it’s one of those things that can be quickly answered by asking about perspective. A main character encourages empathy and drives the storyline. Well, how you interpret that depends on how you plan to develop the story, but that’s not what I’m discussing here.

If your book has more than one main character, the same rules apply in previous subpoints. The difference, however, is you can’t give one character more attention than the other. You can’t favor one. Every MC has their own story, their own purpose, their own ending, and their own beginning.

So, what does that mean in the revision stage?

Sometimes, you create one MC, but that MC becomes two or three because what you wanted to use as your secondary characters ended up being a lot more powerful in the story. You won’t have developed their back story as much as you would have your initial MC, so during revisions—and most times, this is where a beta reader or editor will help most—pay attention to what character drives you more.

  • Which one is most engaging?
  • Should you decrease the amount of attention you gave your new MCs and make them secondary, or do they deserve that spotlight that comes with being an MC?

If you think your new MC(s) need that necessary spotlight, giving them a title as a main character, you have work to do, but make sure without that extra spotlight, the story wouldn’t be the same. If you take Hermione or Ron out of the HP novels, for example, the novel isn’t the same. In fact, it wouldn’t be near as good. So, make sure this is the case for you then go back and revise accordingly. Drive their story into the current plot, and make them relevant. Give them purpose.

What if I planned to use more than one MC?

First, you’re going to have to ask yourself the same questions I suggested above:

  • Which one is most engaging?
  • Should you decrease the amount of attention you gave your new MCs and make them secondary, or do they deserve that spotlight that comes with being an MC?

And, again, you can read that last paragraph because it’s silly to place it here again. But, if you have more than one MC, and it was a plan from the beginning, you might have a better grasp of things. Your primary question will be addressed in the next sub-subhead, but I still have a couple things to say.

All the rules I have stated about the MC apply to every MC you have, so during revisions, make sure you can empathize with each. Make sure they all have a reason for being, and ensure they’re an asset to the plot. Sometimes, one of your MCs will conflict with another, and that doesn’t change the rules. MCs do not have to agree with each other. Their plotlines don’t have to intersect in ways that make them assist each other in bringing the story to its end. They can, but don’t think you’ve done something weird by making your MCs enemies.

Make sure they are in line with the other MC(s).

This doesn’t contradict what I just said. This is a different topic. This means you need to make sure they’re part of the same story. Just because they’re part of the same world or because they pass each other in a parking lot means nothing. You might as well give them their own book. I get it. You made them your MC because they have a story you want to tell. It doesn’t mean that because you discovered them in the story you’re writing that they have to be in that story.

So, during revisions, your goal here is to measure them up. Who gets more stage time? Who needs more stage time? (If you answer the latter question, ask yourself why they need it before changing anything.)

Make sure their stories intertwine. Whether they’re best friends, enemies, partners, or just temporary teammates, they need to be part of the same story. They can even be distant partners, meaning they don’t necessarily ever have to meet! They just have to be essential to the same plot. If not, consider giving them their own story.

Well, they’re part of the same storyline, but they still have their own story.

It’s possible that what you’re writing passively intersects your MCs, meaning they’re part of the same world and, in their own way, the same plot. Don’t try to justify it if you don’t need to. What happens if you take one story out. Does the story still go on? If you have a story about a man who owns slaves, and one perspective is that of one of the slaves, their stories intersect. But, they are two different stories. While these perspectives can be used and two main characters can be relevant and engaging, if the slave’s perspective doesn’t directly affect the slave owner’s, meaning the plot isn’t necessarily affected by the slave’s actions, you might want to give the slave his or her own story. They deserve it.

In part three . . .

We go into secondary and tertiary characters. I discuss why they’re necessary and what role they play. This will help you in revisions because you’ll be able to figure out who should and shouldn’t be there, how much spotlight you should be giving them, and possibly where you might need to develop them more.

Have you read the other parts of the revision series?

Part 1: exposition, climax, and denouement

Part 3: secondary and tertiary characters

Part 4: flashbacks and back story

Part 5: plot and flow

Part 6: theme and setting

Part 7: filler words

Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mitch

    This article is great. Really getting me thinking.

    I’m currently juggling two protags in my story, and this has been somewhat of a concern of mine–whether they’re both empathetic enough and if they’re both growing equally. They both have their own motivations and backstories (though I’m not sure how much of it I will go into in this book), and they’re forced into a situation where they have to rely on each other. I’m not sure I could even pick which one is suppose to be the main character, depending on your perspective of the matter.

    1. Cayce R Berryman

      You can have more than one protagonist, and you can definitely have, in essence, more than one main character. If both are required for the story’s success and both stories are important, you can say you have two main characters. But they both have to be there. They have no reason to grow at the same rate, one might not grow at all…They’re their own people. Give them an equal amount of attention if you need both of them to have a similar spotlight. If you have two main characters, you must have a reason. Ask yourself what the second perspective does that you can’t show or explain with one person.

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