Character Objective and Writing a Strong Protagonist

Writing objectives for your characters creates strong protagonists with nuance and drive. Remember, you want to focus on writing a proactive protagonist into your novel. Character objective is a top notch way of doing that. Here’s what I mean by that, and how you can use this powerful idea to move your story forward.

character objective, writing objectives
Strong goals and reasons for them form the foundation of compelling character objective.

What is Character Objective?

Character objective is easy to understand: It’s what a character wants.  Objective also goes hand-in-hand with character motivation. The reason why a character wants something. If you don’t know this about your protagonist, you are in deep, deep trouble. Writing objectives should be top of mind. Why?

All characters should want something. Wanting is universally compelling, we can all relate to it. When I know what a character wants, I am that much more excited to root for them. When I understand why they want it, that feeling only grows. (Making a reader care is one of the cornerstones of how to hook a reader, after all.)

Writing Objectives That Compel Readers

The act of writing a character objective is a bit more tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Establish the objective ASAP. Don’t leave readers hanging. Within the first chapter, make sure the character has at least an initial objective that they’re pursuing. This can tie into their bigger picture want and need as a person, or it can be something short-term. But let’s show them wanting something.

Make the objective specific. “To feel happy” is a very vague objective. It is too broad, and doesn’t have a clear way to know whether it has been achieved or not (since “happiness” is so nebulous). “To help Mom get her job back by impressing her boss” is much more specific.

Let your character imagine the possibilities. Add nuance to the objective by letting your character think about the ramifications. What happens if she does get Mom’s job back? How does she plan to impress the boss? What happens if the gambit fails?

Add stakes. Create a sense of ramifications for success and failure, and don’t forget to add nuance here, too. Maybe if Mom gets her job back, that will solve a lot of problems, but then she’ll be away from home. If Mom doesn’t get the job, maybe the family will fall into dire straits, financially. What might all that mean for your character and plot?

Weaving Character Objective Into Story

Finally, let objective translate into a larger sense of story. This is where the rubber of writing objectives meets the road. Let the character come back to the objective often, mentally. Dream about it. Worry about it. Take action toward it. The latter should then translate into plot.

Start with a strong sense of objective and let the character work toward it. Make it important. Give it layers. Not only will this help your character be more compelling, but your entire narrative as well.

Still struggling with character, objective, motivation, or creating a truly three-dimensional protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor and get in-depth, personal advice from an experienced publishing professional.

Character Turning Points

The other day, I found myself giving advice on character turning points and changes of heart. A client of mine had a manuscript where the characters were being swayed this way and that by a controversial force in the story. A protagonist would end up on one side of an issue, and a few scenes later, they would have second thoughts and flip-flop. Unfortunately, this gets the reader all confused.

character turning points, motivating turning points, character turning point, change of heart, character motivation, character development
You want to literally be able to point to a change of heart on the page.

Now, I’m all about flip-flops on my feet, but not so much when you’re creating complex characters. When there are character turning points in your story, I want to go through the process of that change with them.

Let Your Reader Into Character Turning Points

If a reader is not attached but still has to ride along through these character turning points, a disconnect will emerge. Your POV character will start to seem fickle, and their beliefs will start to seem arbitrary. When you’re writing a character, you want to imbue them with certain principles and convictions. One’s orientation about various issues is an integral part of who one is.

Knowing what a character stands for and cares about helps me, as a reader, understand who they are. Now, good plots bring a character up against their beliefs in ways that challenge character and reader alike. This is what sparks good character development.

Changes of heart are sometimes my favorite moments in a story. They’re a great opportunity to deepen character, introduce an element of surprise, or challenge the reader. The rub is, they have to exist on the page, and the reader needs to be guided through them.

How to Engineer a Change of Heart

Every time there are character turning points, you have an opportunity. Let’s say that your protagonist hates the school bully. This is a familiar enough trope that anyone can understand it, and the emotions behind it. “She is so mean,” your character might think, and that’s that.

But then your protagonist comes across Queen Bee crying in the bathroom, all by herself (which usually never happens). Sure, your character can keep insisting, “She is so mean. She probably got what she deserved.” That’s certainly one approach. But are you going to advance your character development? Nope.

Instead,, you can add some nuance and change the belief a bit. “I know what she did to Ryan was terrible, terrible, but…maybe she has something going on.” Ah, some nuance, some dimension, a little depth creeps in! Well, now what?

Aftercare for Character Turning Points

The important thing is to never rest on your laurels. Instead of making your protagonist’s opinion linear or contradictory, turn it into character development. The relationship with Queen Bee should have its own trajectory. And each turn of the screw should appear on the page.

Once your POV character has seen Queenie in a moment of vulnerability, don’t go back to, “She is so mean.” That doesn’t quite fit anymore. Queen Bee might still be mean, but now, the opinion could temper to, “I wonder what’s going on under the surface?” Then maybe QB is mean again, and then it can progress further to, “Well, if she’s got problems, why is she taking them out on us?” Finally, there’s some kind of reconciliation. Maybe in then it becomes, “I get it now, and I’m sorry I never reached out to help.”

As we learn more about the characters and their situations, always make sure that your protagonist’s opinions are changing and specific and the reader can easily follow. Whenever you set up character turning points, let the protagonist reflect.

This way, not only will your protagonist have relationships in the novel with other characters and plot points, but each important opinion and belief will also have a trajectory, like a living, breathing thing.

Working on character development? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

Writing Character Development: Vulnerability

I’ve been coaching some clients through writing character development over the last few months. Either the character in question has some pretty obvious flaws (which are part of who they are), or they do some pretty flawed things over the course of the story. Or both. It’s not that the characters I’ve been working with in my editorial practice are unlikeable, it’s that they’re human, quirky, realistic.

writing character development, vulnerable characters
Is your protagonist having a…moment? It’s okay as long as you’re crafting vulnerable characters. Their vulnerability will build a bridge to the reader.

Writing Character Development: Relatability

People are not all good, all the time. That doesn’t happen in real life, nor should it happen in fiction when you’re writing character development. But in fiction, you have to always keep in mind the idea of “relatability.” Because a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Tinkerbell needs applause, the characters in novels need readers to believe in them and relate to them in order to be real. In the publishing world, if I can’t relate to your character, as a reader, chances are, I’m not going to get too deep into the story. I may even put the story down.

So the goal is to write relatable characters, but sometimes they must be mean or selfish. They must act in a way that hurts others, or themselves. They must get away from their own best interest.

The Importance of Vulnerability

So when you’re writing character development, how do you make a character like this accessible to the reader through good times and bad?

Vulnerability.

Sounds simple, but what does that look like on the page? I’ll prescribe my magic solution: Let the character admit that they’re being a butt, and it will humanize the behavior. It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.

Vulnerability in Thoughts

Here are some examples of writing character development with vulnerability. If a character is being cruel to another character, they could do something like this:

“Takes one to know one!” I shouted. I was being so terrible to Brady, but I couldn’t get past him telling the teacher on me. He was supposed to be my friend.

While the reader may not agree with the behavior, at least they know that the character acknowledges it and has a reason for it. Even if that reason isn’t that valid, at least the character knows they’re in the wrong. Even if the emotion blows over soon, the character has taken the time to guide the reader through their less-than-noble feelings. The character here is being a butt, but the behavior is coming from a place of hurt. In other words, vulnerability.

If they admit that woundedness, they become more human and less of a jerk in the reader’s eyes.

Vulnerability in Actions

The same applies to actions. Play with vulnerability and motivation there, too. For example:

I knew it was wrong to steal. That’s the first thing we learned in Sunday School. And yet here I was, sitting in my car with a brand new MP3 player, still in the box, burning in my pockets. They hadn’t even stopped me. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I kept that on a loop in my head, but it didn’t make me feel any better about what I’d done.

In this example, the character has shoplifted something expensive. But they feel bad, which is one layer of vulnerability. And they did it for a noble reason, which is another. So we have two things that help sell the reader on the behavior.

Vulnerability After the Fact

The other vulnerable thing to smooth over tough-to-swallow words or actions is how they handle themselves after the fact. Does the first character apologize to Brady, even if it’s at the very end of the story? Does the second character go back to the store and pay them for the MP3 player once the financial emergency is over? Admitting their wrongs to the reader in the moment, and admitting their wrongs to others in the story: a two-pronged approach to broadcasting vulnerability.

If you have tough-to-motivate stuff in your manuscript, how might you use vulnerable characters to help build a bridge to the reader?

Working on crafting vulnerable characters? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

High Stakes In Writing Are Tricky

Is it possible for stakes in writing to be too high?

It seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

stakes in writing, high stakes
Stakes in writing: find a balance between too small and too huge, and always make them specific to your character.

Point being, I saw the same iteration of high stakes in writing over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

Stakes in Writing: the “Chosen One”

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

Can Stakes Be Too High?

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the sky high stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and raising the stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes in writing tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

Selling Huge Stakes Is Difficult

Once your inciting incident kicks off, you have a lot of convincing to do — starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the character and plot need to be inextricably tied to make your high stakes believable.

High Stakes Need to be Tied to Your Specific Character

This specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

Make Your Stakes More Personal

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

Hire me to be your book editor and I’ll help you evaluate if your stakes are too low or too high, and give you actionable steps to make them compelling yet believable.

Fixing a Plot Hole by Changing the Context

I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now and identified a plot hole and its potential fix. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!

Has an improbable character decision or action ripped a plot hole in your story?

The Improbable Thing

There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work with her current story logic. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.

But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy this story logic. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.

In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain story logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this plot problem was too far out to believe.

Fixing a Plot Hole

My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.

So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot hole or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.

If you’re faced with a plot hole in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.

What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs to fix the plot hole. It accomplishes two things.

Changing the Context: Why it Works

First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many plot holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.

Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning the would-be plot hole, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.

If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with your story logic, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.

Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit with your story logic, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.

When you hire me as your developmental editor, I’ll give you advice on how to address the Improbable Things in your manuscript.

What Makes a Good Character: They’ve Gotta Care

Following up on my post about character change, here are some more thoughts about what makes a good character. When a character feels inadequate or has low self-esteem, it’s very hard to motivate them to care about their situation or the story. Another alternative to this scenario is a character who doesn’t want to be involved in their particular circumstances–they couldn’t care less about taking over the family business, for example–and so they try very hard to convince themselves and the reader that they simply don’t care.

what makes a good character, boring characters
Is your protagonist as dull and lifeless as this person? Make them care about their circumstances — that’s what makes a good character.

What Makes a Good Character: Do They Care?

This is very difficult to forge into compelling fiction, and usually results in boring characters. After all, I hold that the basic aim of writing fiction is to make the reader care. So if a character doesn’t care, my first objection is that they’re making it that much more difficult for me, as a reader, to get invested in the story. It feels a little unfair. After all, I’m working so hard to get into the book, suspend disbelief, latch on to a character, inhabit a point of view, hear a voice…that I want the protagonist to be in the same boat. You’re ideally creating someone the reader can get invested in. And if it’s an antihero type or someone stewed in apathy, who won’t invest in their own life, that’s a tough sell; it’s not what makes a good character.

It’s realistic, sure. It happens in life, and it’s very full of deep and real emotions. But it’s hard to pull off well. So if your particular writing challenge is creating a compelling character who just so happens to be detached, pent up, hidden behind defenses, or just a straight-up nihilist, you need to crack those walls at some point, and soon. Even if it’s for a minute, even if only the reader can see it because it happens in interiority…some measure of vulnerability needs to happen, or you’ll end up with boring characters your readers can’t connect with.

What Moves Them Forward?

And then, there needs to be something that compels the character to move forward. Whether it’s a very personal motivation, a private objective, a small bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel, whatever, it needs to pull them forward into the story; it’s what makes a good character. One thing I won’t do as a reader is suffer through a manuscript where it seems like the boring characters are being dragged along, kicking and screaming. Facets of this idea are discussed in my post on the inciting incident and “character buy-in,” which becomes an important concept here. It doesn’t just have to do with suspension of disbelief, it has to do with the character finding their own reason to engage with the story.

Finally, if your character really does care but they say they don’t care, you better make them an active protagonist ASAP, because ain’t nobody got time for that! Protest less and get into the real telling of the tale!

Hire me for my fiction editing services and I’ll help you tease out what makes a good character that readers care about.

The Passive Character and Unconscious Action

Much like with my post on the passive protagonist and blurting in dialogue, I invite you today to consider a related idea about the passive character and unconscious action. Characters actively making conscious decisions and taking conscious actions has more power than them acting impulsively, especially in important moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have a character surprise him or herself with an action, like falling offstage during a monologue or tripping. Calamity happens.

passive character, character action
Unmotivated sudden character action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory.

For a more consequential character action, like slapping one’s best friend or driving past one’s house and ending up in, I don’t know, Argentina, though, I would prefer that some more thought goes into it. Here’s why: I fully believe that building anticipation in your storytelling is important to nurturing that connection with the reader. I’m going to get so much more out of the scene if I sort of know what’s coming.

I don’t need to know how it’s going to be executed or what the outcome will be–that’s the fun part where you build your suspense and where the unexpected happens. But I want to have some vague idea of where things might be headed so that I can start getting invested.

An Example of a Passive Character and Unconscious Action

Let’s say that Julie has beef with her best friend Chris. They’ve been inseparable since kindergarten but, lately, Chris has been saying really mean things about Julie (often within earshot) to get in with some people who he thinks are cool. That’s part of the picture, but it’s just the situation that these two characters are in. Imagine, now, that Julie goes to see Chris and all we have to work with is the following. I see this sort of passive character in a lot of manuscripts:

Julie sat down across from Chris and watched him carefully. “You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Not really.” He chewed his granola bar like he was thinking about it for a minute. “Yeah, no.”
“That’s it, then?”
“What’s it?”
Before Julie could think, her hand flew up and connected with his cheek. She’d never been more hurt in her life. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed. Before she even knew where she was going, she was running out of the cafeteria. Julie had no intention of letting it go that far, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. Great, now Chris and his stupid new friends could have something new to laugh about. All she wanted was some reassurance from her supposed best friend that they were still on track. But he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior. Well, if he had no time to be nice to her, she wouldn’t waste hers on him, either!

Why did she slap him? I have no idea, unless the writer had gone through the trouble of establishing context for the character action first. And it’s not as gratifying to have her unpack the event after it happens and worry about it, as you can see here. Without that work on objective before the scene, this seems like she’s just flailing around, acting on raw feelings that I don’t have access to. Getting her motivations later just isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Build to Action by Adding Context

Now let’s add some context to help flip our passive character to an active one. Let’s say Julie’s getting peeved that he’d rather sell out their friendship to impress some douchebags rather than maintain something that used to be important to both of them. Not only is he not sticking up for her when the bullies start to crowd around, he’s being outright mean and a bully himself.

So Julie goes over to Chris’s house to clear the air or to get some answers, she doesn’t know which. All she knows is that if he doesn’t apologize, she’s going to break up with him as a friend, even if it’s just for a little while. She’s clear that something needs to change, because she’s really, really hurt.

This is a lot of context and I know what Julie is going into the scene with, objective-wise. She wants clarity on a relationship. And she has thought through some bottom lines, boundaries, and possible outcomes. From all of this, I can tell that this confrontation with Chris means a lot to her, and that she’s really taking it seriously. As a reader, I begin to take it seriously as well.

Once all of these pieces are in place, if Chris continues to be a butt and Julie ends up slapping him in the heat of the moment, I am totally fine with it! It’s an impulsive, unconscious character action when it comes down to it, but a whole lot of consciousness went into getting her to that scene.

An Example of an Active  Character and Conscious Action

Let’s try this scene again with some interiority to motivate the slap in the moment, instead of letting it all catch up to her after the fact:

Julie sat down across from Chris in the middle of the busy lunch room. She searched his eyes for a trace of the old Chris, her old best friend. Nothing. If only she could get him to really see her, to remember the old times, then maybe he wouldn’t treat her like crap. “Hi.”
He didn’t really react, not at all like the kid she used to know.
“You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Hmm, let me think about it.” His voice was mocking. He chewed his granola bar. “Yeah, no.”
Julie’s hand tensed into a fist. Twelve years was a long time to be friends, and he was throwing it all away. Well, she wasn’t going to take it. If he wanted a punching bag, he’d have to find someone else! “That’s it, then?” she asked. She pleaded with him, deep down, to just snap out of it.
“That’s it.”
Nothing. The rejection stung all over again. Before Julie knew what crossed her mind, she reached across the table and slapped his smug face.

These are quick examples of a passive character versus an active one, dashed off for illustrative purposes, but I want to try and convey here that unmotivated sudden character action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory, sudden or not. Interiority, what the character experiences during the event, is a huge part of this, too. The more we know about what they want and what they’re going through, the more we can follow their conscious and unconscious movements through the story.

Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

How to Edit Writing: Tinkering Vs. Progress

Writers, I want to take a moment to emphasize that you shouldn’t even think about how to edit writing until you have a full manuscript under your belt. This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years: writers will be really passionate about their early chapters — the ones they’ve already drafted. There might be a strong desire to finish the project, but progress just isn’t happening. Why? Fixating on proofreading and editing those completed chapters slams the brakes on finishing a first draft.

how to edit writing, developmental editing
When you focus too much on tinkering with the details, you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

The Appeal of What You’ve Already Written

It’s there already, and you can begin proofreading and editing. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, so they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar? In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive.

Focusing on How to Edit Writing Means Missing the Forest for the Trees

While you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, proofreading and editing can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What I Recommend

Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough, and you should pay zero attention to how to edit writing. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

You Won’t Know the Whole Story Until You Reach the End

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. Those first chapters that you’re proofreading and editing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes. So tackling how to edit writing isn’t fully productive until that first draft is complete.

Aim for Complete Rather Than Polished

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. (When you’re at that point, make sure to check out my post on first draft novel revision.) Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying than getting tangled up in how to edit writing.

Having trouble seeing the big picture? Hire me as your developmental editor and I’ll help you find the right direction.

Positive and Negative Character Motivation

I’ve been preaching all along that character motivation is crucial. Fiction characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective. Those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Character objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it.

character motivation, character motivations, positive character motivation, negative character motivation, character motivation in fiction, fiction writing
Framing character motivation in a positive versus a negative way.

Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire story arc, as well as more tangible objectives and character motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

Impact of Positive and Negative Motivation

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative character motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

Setting a Proactive Goal for Character Motivation

On the other hand, positive character motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct character motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it.

Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

Keeping Character Motivation In Balance

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive character motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active character motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it. (Check out my post on writing a proactive protagonist for more on this topic.)

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

Would you like help with crafting compelling characters? Hire me for developmental editing and I will help you take your novel to the next level.

Tips on Writing Prose: Eliminate Those “Blah” Words

Today, I want to talk about watching out for “blah” words when you’re writing prose.  This is a topic I’m super intense about. My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post about vague writing. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

writing prose, specific writing
Sharpen your word choices to establish character and reinforce objectives.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of using specific writing to reinforce motivation/objective, the author resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like?

Example Time

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples of writing prose that’s vague. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

Aim for Specificity When You’re Writing Prose

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies when you’re writing prose. Specific writing is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

In this instance of writing prose, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become specific writing, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specific writing.

Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you tighten up your manuscript with specific writing.