Revision Adventures: Building Strong Characters and Emotional Depth

I’m currently revising my manuscript in response to editorial suggestions -- mostly from my agent Jim, but also from feedback I received during my agent search and from my second round of beta readers.

The focus is on increasing emotional and character depth, and I thought I'd share some themes and tips from my revision notes.

1. Relationships should include both tension and harmony

Relationships will be more compelling if they include a balance of conflict and cooperation. For example, my villain is a pretty ruthless guy, but his evil deeds would have more impact if my protagonist (and my readers) believed that he was also capable of good. Therefore, I’m reworking some passages to show his nicer side. Likewise, there’s an “older brother” figure who acts as a emotional anchor. That's all well and good, but making him less unconditionally supportive and more human adds depth to his relationship with my protagonist, and the conflict actually strengthens their emotional bond.

2. Present backstory early to increase character depth

Several readers mentioned having trouble connecting to one of my point-of view characters. I’ve been doing several thing to address this. First, I’m going through and fleshing out his emotional reactions. Also, Jim suggested moving his backstory earlier in the narrative so readers can get a better sense of who he is. My opinions of backstory have changed quite a bit over the past year. I used to avoid it because people so often warned against backstory overload, but I'm coming to realize how important it is for character bonding. Also, an analysis of some favorite books showed that backstory was actually more prevalent than I thought.

3. Everything should be connected

When a big emotional event happens, it should echo through the later scenes, in the character's thoughts, and affect her later actions. Also, characters that have a strong emotional bond with the protagonist should appear in her thoughts at appropriate times.

When I revise, I  give myself writing exercises to see the manuscript with fresh eyes. This is what I've been doing from scene to scene.

1. Write out each character’s motivation going in.

2. Ask whether any of these developments in the scene make the character think of previous events, future events, or other characters.

3. Jot down the POV character's emotional state from paragraph to paragraph. 
This has been both entertaining and enlightening. I started off eloquently, with notes like “confused”, “worried”, “uneasy.” Halfway through the book, notes have disintegrated into “Gahhh!”, “ZOMG”, “Run!!!!.”
But I’ve found this exercise useful for pinpointing places where the emotion didn't quite make it onto the page. It also maps out dramatic tension. My most exciting scenes have emotions that change every paragraph. Sometimes however, I will only mark one emotion for an entire page -- and surprise, surprise, those are usually the scenes that test readers have told me were emotionally flat.

Thus far, I'm really excited about how revisions are going. I feel like this round is really stretching me as a writer and forcing me to work on my blind spots.

Now readers, it's your turn. What are your tricks for increasing emotional and character depth?

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  1. Great post. I didn't think about putting several emotions into one scene like that. Mostly I would focus on one or two in a scene, but not every paragraph. Those are awesome points.

  2. LOVE your tip on mapping a character's emotional state from para to para in a scene -- may have to try that one!

    Great post as usual, Livia (you do know that I'm coming to expect that from you now, right?). :)

  3. I am, right now, doing the first point you bring up - adding conflict to the two main characters' relationship.

    I write out of order for the first draft and sometimes I don't remember your third point - excellent point, btw. That'll be what I work on this weekend, I think.

  4. Throw a curveball! Not just to the readers, but to your main character that you just KNOW will make them squirm by ratchetting up the tension - and then, make your character buckle under the pressure.. No one's perfect, so why should a character be?

  5. Wonderful post. I'm sticking you in my blogroll. Thanks!

  6. Those are excellent suggestions! I also like to apply Bob Mayer's triangle of traits for each character: trait/need/flaw.
    And by knowing their deepest fears, it helps me in writing the first draft. I love your idea of noting each emotion in each scene...that will help me a lot too!

  7. Kathryn - Well, the emotions are usually very related, just slight variations on the same spectrum. It might get a little whiplash-y if they were too different :-)

    Linda - Glad you found it useful. And haha, no pressure, right? Hope you're enjoying portal!

    Sue - I write out of order as well, which is probably why I had to go back and work in the threads :-)

    Anonymous -- Great tip. I love a good emotional breakdown.

    jwmanus - Thank you!

    Pk - I hadn't heard of the triangle of traits before. Thanks for bringing it up.

  8. Thought provoking post. I'm in an editing phase at the moment too, so this will be very helpful. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  9. Excellent post! I love how your character dissolves into "Gaaah!"--funny!

    Although the concept isn't new, I make sure my character has a reason for every action. The reader should understand why she is acting/reacting the way she is.

  10. I really enjoyed this post! I am relieved to see that I do a lot of these things as I write. Instead of writing the emotional state in the margin, I try to make sure that characters have a chance to perceive an event, react emotionally/have memories evoked, decide on a motive, and then react (sometimes very quickly; other times more slowly). It helps to keep events locked into the character's emotions and viewpoint as well as backstory.

  11. Connecting emotional events through later scenes is very important. The same goes for when a character is physically injured. An injury must be referred to as the story moves along. If a character breaks a leg, their life becomes inconvenient. A bruise can't just disappear over night. These are the outward signs. Emotions can be dealt with in the same way. They are the inward injuries that must have some impact on the character. Thanks for the great post.

  12. Excellent post, Livia. You've spelled out a lot of the things I've been thinking about as I work on my own revision.

    I've gone through the same process of changing my perspective on backstory. When I got feedback from my beta readers that they weren't sympathizing with my protagonist until a point quite late in the story when he explained everything he'd been through to another character, I had a real duh moment. Of course if I wanted readers to cut my character some slack because of what had happened to him, I was going to have to let them know what had happened!

    In general, I've found some of the most helpful feedback is when readers tell me they don't have the sympathy or positive feelings about my characters that I was trying for. A few ways I deal with this in revision:

    - Make sure that the character's motivation is on the page and not just in my head. There might be a very good reason that the character is having trouble doing the obvious right thing, but if the reader doesn't understand it, the character looks like an idiot or a jerk.

    - As you mentioned, make relationships with other characters more complex and complicated, and therefore more realistic and identifiable.

    - When a character needs to behave badly, have another character point it out to serve as a proxy for the reader's frustration. (I've seen this great advice repeated in a lot of places, perhaps including on this blog.)

    I'm looking forward to more revision adventures!

    Great points in all these comments, too. I like Kristina's reminder about handling injuries and how that goes for emotional injuries as well.

  13. Great suggestions, thank you. I try to get my characters to be as natural as possible. By this I mean, your descriptions should be consistent with the image the reader forms of your character. The way he/she walks or talks must be in consonance with what he/she is supposed to be, to add depth to the character.

  14. Cally - thanks for dropping by!
    Jill - good point about having a reason. It's one of those concepts that are easy to forget what we get caught up in our stories.

    Kristina - that's a great analogy about physical and emotional injuries! I might have to start using that.

    Lisa - the whole making it onto the page thing has been a huge challenge for me. It's hard to remember sometimes that your readers can't read your mind.

    Prem - great point about consistency, though I can see how some well thought out inconsistencies might make for interesting depth as well.

  15. Hi - just over from Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog - she tweeted this and am I glad she did. I am mid-revision too and one of my tasks is to enrich my characters (or those that need it - I might need to get rid of a few too), so this was mega-helpful - thanks. I will use the emotion exercise - I did it awhile back with beat sheets but now I need to do it again. Also, the back story biz was helpful. Most helpful was knowing that you are doing this in a late revision - I felt like I should have had this up earlier so I'm heartened by your report. I also like Lisa's suggestion about making sure the motivation is on the page. So much of a story we carry in our heads, thinking it is obvious when it isn't. I also need to watch for consistency - if I'm not careful my characters dialogue will slip into word choices that are more mine than theirs. I have an editor who is very good at pointing this out. Thanks so much - I'll be back!