This is a blog post I never thought I would write. Why? Because I had no idea, until I went head-first into revision with one of my authors, what to say about it.
But when an editor comes back to you saying she loves the book, but she’d like to see some revision on peripheral characters, well, gosh darn it, you figure out what to say pretty fast!
So here are some tips that I came up with for my author:
Ask yourself: What is their motivation?
One of the most important elements of your novel is understanding motivation. And not just your hero and/or heroine’s. A great exercise for this is to write a piece of the book in each of your character’s perspectives. You don’t have to include this; but see what they have to say. After you give them a voice, go back to your novel, and make sure their motive and perspectives come through without needing to be in their heads.
Avoid black/white characters
No, not physically; your peripheral characters can be purple for all I care. What I mean here is: avoid blanket good/bad stereotypes. Yes, sometimes these blanket characters pop up; epic stories usually have them. But the gray area is always so much more interesting and heartbreaking.
A great example of this came to me last night, when I (re) watched (for the millionth time) Pirates of the Carribean. Captain Barbosa is clearly a bad guy…right? But that last scene, when he dies, and the bright green apple falls from his fingers…you definitely feel heartbroken for the guy, don’t you? That little detail, those darned apples, were a beautiful plot device for making him more dynamic. They were a physical representation of his motive. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad; he was in pain. Yes, he also gets a chance to explain his motive to us, but it’s the apples that really drive it home.
Ask yourself: Are these characters just tools to an end?
Part of what may make a character seem less dynamic is if they only exist to drive forward the plot. Yes, yes; back to the epic fantasy example, sometimes it’s unavoidable to encounter these “extras.” Not every character in a movie needs to run up to the heroine and explain their motivation. I think, perhaps, creating a little map of where each character in your book falls in relation to the hero/heroine should demonstrate the appropriate level of development in your novel:
As the circle widens, the development lessens.
Great; I’ve done the circle and the exercise. Now what?
Good question. Everyone’s approach to revision is different. But to start, think back to the Barbosa example: allow your peripheral characters a chance to explain themselves. Their motivations are going to have to come through via interaction with the hero and/or heroine, if you don’t have multiple POVs (which I never recommend). So go back to pivotal scenes, and give them a voice!