Character credibility and the domino effect.
Character credibility and the domino effect

What is the most common problem I see in manuscripts? Let’s call it character credibility and the domino effect. But before I get to that, let’s check out the more obvious problems I’d be looking at.

The more obvious developmental concerns

As a developmental editor who deals with fiction, I obviously look at a novel’s structure, its plots and subplots, and the strength of the characterisation.

I’ll also look at pacing, point of view, whether the right point of view and tense is being used, whether there are inconsistencies in POV.

I’ll look at the themes. And whether the plots and character arcs serve the theme.

I’ll check out the novel’s location. Does it needs to be fleshed out more? Or is there is too much detail slowing down the pace?

I’ll check dialogue for any problems there.

I’ll look at the balance of showing versus telling. And I’ll check the beginning to see if it has a good early hook, the middle for standing strong, and the ending for closing in the best place. I’ll also check to see if the ending matches the promise of the beginning.

In fact, there are all sorts of things that will come up in a developmental edit. Some writers have POV nailed down to the point there isn’t a lot to say about it. They might have as much dialogue as needed, and it’s strong and doesn’t need much attention.

Different writers have their own strengths and weaknesses. Over time they can become aware of what they need to work on so that by the next novel, they know what to look out for.

Psychology and the domino effect

But there are one or two things that come up so often that I thought I’d write a post about them. They’re actually related to one another. I call them ‘the dominoes’ and often ‘the psychological dominoes’. However, it’s not necessarily always an issue of psychology. But psychology is something that I end up commenting on the most in a manuscript’s margins.

To start with a basic example of the dominoes – imagine your character is shot in the leg. That would be painful. If they’re not used to being shot in the leg, or being attacked at all, there will likely be some lingering trauma for a while. So it wouldn’t make sense for you to have your character walking about a week later without any pain or any memory of what happened.

Yet this is the kind of thing I do see in manuscripts.

It’s usually not a gunshot though. It will be something else. It could be a terrible accident that should impact the characters for quite a while and reverberate through the novel until there’s some kind of resolution – even if it’s not the main plot and you don’t spend too much time on it.

Basically, once you set up that first domino and knock it over, there should be a chain of dominoes going over after it. A chain of consequences.

How would someone in the real world react?

This doesn’t mean you have to angst over following through on every single thing that happens to your characters. But it’s certainly worth thinking about how someone in the real world would react to something like that. Would they get over this event immediately? Or would they think about it sometimes in the dead of night? Perhaps they could be frightened it would happen again?

I often find that characters have suddenly developed amnesia about things that have happened earlier in the book. And it’s a form of amnesia that just wouldn’t happen in the real world.

Sure, you don’t think about bad things all the time. But there will be little things that sometimes trigger a memory and a physical response to that memory.

Your characters must be credible

This is the kind of thing I often address in margins. Because otherwise characters lack credibility. They don’t act like real people. They do what is required in any one scene. But this will undermine their overall believability and even their likeability in the eyes of the reader.

For example, a character that doesn’t think about a tragic event after it happens and carries on happily could end up looking heartless or even psychopathic.

While you might indeed want to create an unlikeable character, they still have to be credible. Even unlikeable people will want to avoid putting themselves into dangerous or upsetting situations again. Even unlikeable people can mourn for a loved one.

The importance of creating engaging characters

One of the most important goals early on in your novel should be to get the reader to care about their character and want to know what happens to them. At the very least, if the character is Patrick Bateman, the reader should be intrigued by them.

That’s why digging deeper into character psychology is so important.

Readers don’t remember every detail of a plot long after they’ve finished the book. But they remember how the book made them feel. They’ll remember whether they fell in love with the characters or strongly identified with any of them. They’ll remember the atmosphere of the book too.

So, characterisation is really important and that means making your characters as believable as possible.

An example of the dominoes

This does not mean loads of reflection or angst, which would block forward momentum of the plot. But it does mean remembering that your character does not have amnesia. There will be times they remember something. You can use memory triggers carefully in the right places.

Here’s an example: imagine your character goes out one night and is beaten up. They shouldn’t then swan out the door another night as if they don’t recall what happened the first time. Your character should be wary about going out alone. They might even put it off. They might have to overcome their fear. When they do go out, they should be hypervigilant. Obviously it depends on your plot and the character’s situation whether they’re likely to be attacked again. But if they have fears, and you play on it, you can increase the stakes for the character, and the tension for the reader. You can make the reader worry even if nothing happens.

It’s not about creating false tension, it’s just natural that someone would be worried and you don’t necessarily have to add much to the text to show the inner battle to overcome a fear. It’s not about adding in a chunk of words. You just need to show the consequences of a previous plot event, how it impacts the character, and how the character learns to deal with it over time.

Otherwise, if they sail out the door with no concerns, you’ve missed a bunch of opportunities to show inner conflict, higher stakes, tension, and so on.

Use psychological triggers – but don’t overdo it

If bad things happen to your character, consider what might trigger them into remembering. It could be something that another character says in a conversation that briefly causes them upset or stress. They can overcome it. But if a character’s loved one is murdered, and someone else mentions another murder, the main character cannot help but be triggered into remembering/feeling/reacting etc, complete with physical symptoms, however brief.

Dealing with the dominoes is not something you have to worry about much in an early draft. You can leave this to the polishing stage. But it’s best to deal with it a bit earlier than late drafts. That’s because if you do introduce triggers, it might mean scene rewrites or some new scenes.

Most of all, it’s not every single thing that happens to a character that matters. It’s what someone in a particular situation would naturally feel when a possible trigger is present.

Or when they’re lying in bed at night unable to sleep. This is a time when people in the real world do angst. But I often see characters going to bed, even in the middle of dramatic events. And they seem to fall asleep immediately, when many real people would be tossing and turning!

Conclusion

It’s worth paying attention to your own reactions to things – how you’re reminded of events from the past. How other people around you behave.

Writing a novel doesn’t mean you have to write a psychological manual. But adding in psychological realism can help boost your characters and the inner conflicts to another level. It can also help, where relevant, in raising a scene’s stakes.

Ultimately you’re making your characters stronger. You’re showing a chain of actions. Character amnesia (which can leave a plot looking episodic and disconnected) is eliminated, and your stakes are raised.

Looking for feedback on your novel?

I currently have openings for manuscript critiques, mini opening chapters developmental edits, and full developmental edits. I can also give feedback on novel outlines with a report and margin comments.

If you have any particular questions, you can contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com. You can also check out my services page here:

Developmental Fiction Editing Services – IndieCat Editorial