Character Development and Revision

Hi Friends,

Happy Holidays. Be safe. It seems like December, for a month devoted to peace on earth, is awfully stressful and full of angry people. Maybe that was just the lady in the car next to me last night while we were stuck in a traffic jam. Please don’t be that lady.

I’ve advanced through the QUERY TRENCHES into the COURTYARD OF REVISIONS. I’ve pulled up a little bench and waved at my new comrades. Some of them I recognize from the DESERT OF DESPAIR. Too much Pilgrim’s Progress, literary style?

Anyway, I’ve been working through my agent’s revisions. First, I really appreciate her thoughtful and insightful questions and comments. The concrete suggestions were, in many ways, easier than the overall questions: How can you weave Adam and Rachel into the bigger story of what’s happening? Why are they important?  And, of course, the character arcs.

So, here’s my confession. I made a mistake at the beginning. The conceit of the novel was: What happens when an ordinary mom and boy who already have medical problems find themselves in the middle of an apocalypse. The story grew from there. I answered questions about what caused the firestorm, what the world looked like after, started stringing images together. What I didn’t do was make my ordinary mom a real person.  That was a mistake. Yes, she is not a superhero in a world taken over by ancient gods, yes, we see her acting and reacting in the new setting, but my wonderful critique partners pointed out this week that they don’t KNOW Rachel any better than they would know someone they work with or someone in their class or a neighbor that you wave to. That is, they’ve seen the outside of Rachel, heard some interior monologue, felt the love she has for her son, Adam, but aren’t FRIENDS with her.

Huh, I said.

All the mannerisms. All the stomach holding (stress has her on the verge of ulcers), all the headaches (verge of dehydration due to lack of self-care and lack of clean water), all the jaw clenching when she’s scared. They don’t have meaning. They are actions that don’t reveal character. ANYONE could do those things.

“So what does she DO?” I asked.

Like sages on the mountaintop (I have a very wise literary critique group), they told me only I could answer that. I frowned at them. Because I wanted a quick answer. I’m on track to get these revisions done by the end of January. I’m ready to move on to my other novel. I’m ready to work on short stories for awhile. I don’t want to go back and do character exercises.

Then they frowned at me.

“Fine,” I said. Which leads to 35 Questions to ask your character. We did something similar in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s writing class, but my friend Sarah is not here to interview me pretending to be Rachel. Guess I’ll be talking to myself. Which I do anyway, so now I have an excuse.

Here’s an example:

  1. What trait do you (Rachel) most deplore in others?   Being devious and complicated, keeping secrets
  2. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Culture. I love food, music, art, concerts, perfume, fancy clothes, and snuggling in front of the fireplace with a movie at home.
  3. What is your greatest fear?  Failing. I’d rather quit rather than fail. I feel the pressure to succeed and it creates such anxiety that I give up. Like art school. I quit and changed my major to art history. I never opened the gallery in New York like I planned. I never even tried. I blamed the death of my parents, but I know I wimped out.
  4. What do you like about yourself? I like my curly, auburn hair. It secretly reminds me of John William Waterhouse’s painting “The Lady of Shalott.” Did I mention that I’m a hopeless romantic?
  5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? I second guess everything, trying to figure out what to do. I know it makes me look indecisive. I hate it, but I’m afraid of messing up. I need time to figure it all out.
  6. Extrovert or introvert? Definitely introvert. I’m reserved with strangers, modest, and need alone time to work on my drawings. It’s how I figure out what I think — by letting my work come through my subconscious.
  7. What do you most value in your friends? I value loyalty and honesty. With my friends, I can make fun of myself, relax, and drink some wine. After Adam was diagnosed, Nurse Naomi became my best friend because I could always count on her to tell me the truth and because we were on the same journey: save Adam’s life.
  8. What is the quality you most like in a man? A man who can appeal to my senses. I want candlelight, romance, and a phone call or letter after the first date. I want to be swept away with emotion, but it will take time and effort from him! I don’t like drama, but if he can convince me to choose him…I won’t change my mind.

 

The list, of course, has a great many other questions, but you get the point. Fell0w writers — would love to have you answer some of the questions from your character’s POV in the comments.

Love,

Sherri

 

 

 

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