What a developmental editor is looking at:
I say this a lot because it’s absolutely true: characters are the key to the success or failure of your novel. Readers will forgive you some things (maybe) but they absolutely will not forgive a character who doesn’t materialise enough for them or fails to deliver.
If there’s one thing to focus your efforts on learning, developing and getting right first, it’s how to create believable characters. It doesn’t matter if they are loved or hated by your readers, they just need to be real.
Remember, your readers are starting with nothing: they don’t see what you see yet. So the issue is how to make these characters as real to your reader as they are to you.
Some of this will be description, and I assume the appearance of your characters is amongst the first things that come to your mind about them, so this you can pass on relatively easily.
But more importantly you will want your characters to reveal themselves by their actions.
And because of this, you are going to need to be pretty sure you know your characters inside and out. When you do, you’ll know exactly why Meg would say such a thing as that, and precisely why Alex flew into a rage, or why Annabel reacted to his rage that way… You won’t even have to think about this too much because your characters will just react.
And when you know them this well, the readers will pick up on this assurance too.
(Then there’s the ones who refuse to do what you want them to do, right? That’s when you know you’ve got a strong, clear character.)
Problems arise when you get stuck on the question ‘What would Sally do here?’. It’s not an unsolvable problem and you don’t have to rewrite Sally all over again; it just might mean you need to spend a little more time ‘getting to know’ her so that the answer becomes clear.
The second thing here is character development and is, of course, most relevant to the main characters – the protagonist/antagonist. The notion is that Bob will start the book as one person but by the end he has changed in some way. He’s grown up/learned to laugh again/resolved some deep-rooted issues/changed career/been on a spiritual journey – anything really so long as the events in the book have made an impact on who he is.
The role of characters in a narrative is twofold:
Firstly they are represented as individuals – internal and external beings with all the expected range of physical traits and personality quirks;
Secondly, they are representative of the narrative and plot, i.e. they fulfil a purpose.
The first we dealt with above, but the second is just as important to consider.
Each character in your narrative needs to be there for a reason. This is pretty clear for the main characters, but what about the extras? They may be just a crowd bystander in the mall or a waitress at a dinner party, but they are still positioned to move the story on in one way or another.
For example, it’s not necessary for us to know that the waitress in the antagonist's dinner party scene drives her father’s Ford Focus at weekends, has a Taiwanese boyfriend and a hamster called Keith; it's only necessary for us to know she's wearing a skimpy French-maid outfit that she keeps adjusting when she thinks no one is looking and black heels that she can barely walk on – discomforts which may tell us she’s working for the antagonist because she has to rather than chooses to.
So remember, too, that your readers don’t need access to all those character notes you have splayed across your desk. Keep it simple but effective with a few key points:
Ellen’s first boyfriend, Jesse, was a dreamer with a big mind but a little wallet; she didn’t make that same mistake with Carl.
This tells us all we need to know about Jesse, and a lot about Ellen too: it tells us that Ellen favours money over thought (creativity/passion/dreams).
Keep a look out also for seemingly important characters that might show up in a scene or two and then suddenly disappear without explanation.
For example, Samantha’s brother turns up at her door in Chapter 12; he’s stoned again and she’s got too much going on right now to deal with his unresolved daddy issues. He begs her to let him stay and as always she gives in: he can have the sofa but only for a week.
And then... we never hear anything more about him; he doesn’t appear in any more scenes and Samantha doesn’t mention him anywhere throughout the next ten chapters to the end of the book… not once.
So what was his purpose? Why does he seem important in Chapter 12 but thereafter it’s like he didn’t exist? Did he leave eventually? Did he give Samantha grief? Did he add to her worries for the rest of the book, making her confront her own issues? What?
If he serves no purpose (other than to add a bit of filler to your book), then that whole scene needs to be cut: it’s purposeless.
Now, I’m not saying life is best when someone is upset and it causes a bit of a furore or some tension at the very least. But books are!
You can’t have a book without conflict and this is often in the form of character conflict. And not just the main characters.
An entire book about the divorce of Karen and Steve will not only be about Karen and Steve’s problems: other characters won’t get along either. Perhaps Karen’s father never approved of Steve anyway (this causes tension between Karen and her father, and Steve and her father, as well as Karen and Steve themselves).
Conflict runs throughout all relationships in one form or another, from outright screaming matches or physical aggression to muttered expletives, gossiping or underlying tensions.
People never get along 100% of the time, and these tensions are either expressed or suppressed. It makes reality very hard for us all, but it makes storytelling wonderful.
Readers may crave a happy ending, but they want a bit of a tussle first. Light the fuse and watch them go...
Setting & Timeline
Setting and timeline encompass the world you are going to be dropping your characters into. I’ve classed them in the same category here because the two cross over when it comes to the time period of your novel.
Naturally a novel set in eighteenth-century Paris will have a different backdrop to that of twenty-first-century New York.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this aspect of your narrative will be the easiest.
Dependent on the time and place of your narrative, you will need to be paying close attention to: culture, dialect, slang, social, political and economic relevance – all the things that make up our own world.
It doesn’t matter what time period or planet you set your narrative in, you will need to create a realistic world for your characters to inhabit. This isn’t necessarily realistic in terms of the way we live or have lived in the past; it simply means your novel’s backdrop needs to be believable and consistent.
Naturally, in a historic novel you would expect the author to do extensive research to make sure the time they are writing about is relevant. But the same is true for modern or recent past narratives:
What was in the news? What was relevant to society? What slang was being used and what wasn’t? What were people doing with their time?
Not all of this will be needed in your book, of course, but it means that the backdrop you create in your narrative is recognisable, relevant to the time and believable.
Many readers won’t notice if you slip up… but a surprising amount will.
Research and know your setting and time period well!
And it’s no different if your setting is Planet Chabernook in a time beyond time. Okay, so research is out of the question probably. But you need to feel confident this planet has its own encyclopaedia, atlas and history books, even if their contents don’t make it into the story.
Readers can sniff out an unprepared, unstable setting from several bookshops away. There’s not always time for this fact checking during your first drafts, so if you haven’t done so at early stages, take the time during your edits to develop your narrative so it matches its time period and timezone.
Is your narrative clear about what time period your narrative is taking place over? Perhaps your entire book is based around the events of one day (Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses, A Christmas Carol), or over a lifetime (David Copperfield, The World According to Garp).
Books with a very long timeline may date their chapters to clarify leaps in time or to relay the importance of specific dates in the future or in history. In most cases, however, the passing of time will need to be integrated into the narrative itself.
Almost a week passed before she was well enough to leave the house.
Later that evening, Tim made his decision.
The next morning...
Alice didn’t see him again for another two weeks.
When you know your story very well, it can be easy to forget to indicate when things are taking place. And whilst your reader will not need to know what happens to your protagonist every waking hour of every day, they will need to feel there is a sense of time passing and just how much time that is.
If your narrative is non-linear in its timeline (e.g. incorporating flashbacks), it will be even more important to clarify what point in the timeline you are on.
Confusing or unclear leaps in timeline will be picked up by a developmental editor, but the passage of time will also be scrutinised more carefully at the copy-edit stage.
And this leads us into Part 5 of the Self-Editing blog series which will introduce you to the Sculpt stage of copy-editing, where we’ll begin by addressing issues with point of view.