Editing: When a Character Changes

on Wednesday, October 19, 2011
I finished my overall edits for Steelgods yesterday, after about a month and a half. I'm going to go back through it again just to be certain I didn't totally ruin anything, but first I'm going to blab about something that came to mind during my editing process.

For those who already know, I can find editing difficult at times. Not editing sentences or even scenes, to be honest; those are easy. The edits that are the hardest for me, I've found, are character edits. You know, where that one guy you really liked when you were writing the first draft just isn't working, so you have to either completely change or cut him. Or that guy you still like, but everybody in your alpha reader group said you'd better change him or they'll burn your manuscript. Those edits.

And what is surprising is that, for me, this is really hard. 

This is probably more of a personal issue than anything, but I tend to get particularly attached to my characters. Plot? A little, but not enough to know when it needs to be changed. Scenes? Those are easily malleable. Setting? If the story dictates it be tweaked, I will willingly oblige. But when it comes down to my characters, I get stuck in a quagmire. What is it that makes changing a character's personality so difficult? Even if I know full well it is for the better?

Take for example, Cevan, our viewpoint character in Steelgods. In the first book, my idea of Cevan was he was a spoiled little twit with lots of potential. His viewpoint was meant to be endearing in a way a puppy is: always trying his hardest, but he's a puppy so he can't exactly save the world. Cevan made a lot of really, really stupid mistakes in the first draft, but I felt that was a part of his character. It was who he was, and in a series about massive character growth, Cevan had to start pretty low in order to become the "Destroyer of the World."

The problem is, while this works good in theory, in execution it can be aggravating. With the exception of George R. R. Martin fans, readers tend to get really pissed off when their favorite characters (especially a viewpoint character in a first-person viewpoint) makes really, really awful decisions. While Cevan isn't a total moron, he came close at times, making decisions any rational person wouldn't make. His incompetence, while helping to show how much he improved by the end of the book, was more of a literary crutch than an actual character trait.


So now we have new Cevan. He still makes stupid decisions. He still makes rather glaring errors. However, he isn't convinced he's stupid. He still manages to react to situations rather than being a passive observer. His improvement is still obvious, but he now has things he's good at to counterbalance his fallacies. He may be awful at swordfighting and generally being brave, but at least he's extremely determined and can...sing?

The other problem with Cevan in the first draft was he was an empty shell, much like Sam in Paradise Seekers. I'll make no excuses for that: our viewpoint in Paradise Seekers is not very well developed. He fell into "Cevan-syndrome," which basically means he was there to advance the plot, and not to actually be a well developed character in the book. This was something I hoped to remedy after a billion drafts, but it never reached the point I'd hoped. He's halfway there, but doesn't quite reach a point where you care about him.

This has also been changed in the new Steelgods to fix Cevan. As I changed his reactions, that also means it changed how he thought about the situations he was put into. Cevan is (this is not really a spoiler) thought to be the Destroyer of the World but a malevolent group of magicians/lunatics called the Peacemakers. As an added bonus, the Peacemaker's counterpart, The Gears of Anbar, also want Cevan for some reason. So he basically is going to run his whole life, safe nowhere, until he gets captured and killed. Great life, huh?

Well, first draft Cevan never really addressed the stresses that would come with that kind of thing. Well, he does, but it's near the end of the novel. He just never reacted appropriately to situations, which made him both unbelievable, an unreliable narrator (even though the book is technically first-person omniscient), and unsympathetic.

All of these issues were (mostly) resolved in The Gears of Anbar, which is how I knew how messed up Cevan in Steelgods was. The juxtaposition of these two characters was in such contract I couldn't help but see all the problems.

What was the point of all this? Um...what was I talking about before? Oh, right, why it's hard.

So all these edits sound like worthwhile things to Cevan's character, right? I also had to make substantial changes to his stepsiblings, Devent and Rosemary, to make it so they actually had motives and personalities and the reader actually cared about them. The problem was, I've read Steelgods 1 probably 5-6 times since I wrote it. I re-read my novels frequently, picking them apart without actually using a red pen (I read them on my Kindle), digging through them in attempts to identify flaws to address when I begin later projects. This is a good technique, and I stand by it, but it has one fatal flaw: I get really connected to my rough drafts. Even with all their problems, this is the way I now see my characters. So when I go in to change them, I feel like I'm killing somebody I know.

This is a problem.

I swear this had a point, but I totally forgot it. So we'll go with whatever I think up first, which is: changing characters is hard, probably the most difficult part of editing for me. It's amplified by the fact I discovery write the majority of my characters, so they really need to be fixed since usually every character's personality in the first 3-4 chapters is completely off from who they are in the rest of the novel. Still, reaching that distance required from a story is something I need to work on, at least for characters.

Anybody else have this problem? Are character edits harder for you, or other forms of edits? Or are you editing fiends and everything is really easy?


CNHolmberg said...

Nice pictures, ha.

Character edits are hard, especially when they're fundamentally in your head a certain way, and then you have to change them (cough Henny cough). But congrats on finishing the book! Start submitting!

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