…until you can’t…
I’m learning, slowly, that I should stop telling people I’ve “finished” my manuscript. So far, five complete overhauls later, it hasn’t been the most appropriate word choice. My writing friends understand, but my non-writing friends either think I’m crazy or a pathological liar. Both of these are possible, but are topics for another day.
Most recently, my agent and I agreed that I needed to make some revisions based on the feedback I’ve received from editors (translation: we looked at the reasons editors gave for saying “er…no…” and agreed I should address them in a rewrite).
One of the main issues was the lack of negative qualities in my main character. I love him dearly, and it showed a little too definitively in my writing. Essentially, he was George Bailey without the reluctance.
I went into the rewrite with a hatchet—not the butter knife I’d been employing up to that point. The antagonist had been an unsavory, cranky witch. But in the rewrite, she became someone who thought, spoke, and behaved so coldly, I had to walk away from the computer several times because of my angry tears. The secondary character, who is the center of the protag’s motivations and actions, had kept one secret before, innocently and without malice. Now she keeps three, and her motives are grubby, not pure.
And then I attacked the protagonist. I gave him violent tendencies, and made sure he acted upon them regularly. I wrote two chapters this way, adding in scenes and interior monologue to go along with this new, improved(?) version of the character.
After one of the most productive writing days I’d had all summer, I came home from my writing spot, and I was exhausted, spent, and crabby. This isn’t unusual for me: I absorb the moods of my characters and it takes awhile to come out of it. My daughters know good and well to avoid me on days I’m writing scenes in the antagonist’s POV, but I’d never felt that way after a day spent with my protagonist. Still, he was different now, so I figured the feeling would pass.
And then it didn’t. It lasted for days. I believe the word “funk” would apply quite well here. I couldn’t open the document on my computer. I couldn’t talk or even think about where to go next.
After about a week of this, my daughters asked me why they hadn’t seen me writing. So I told them. Now, they had both read the book when it was “finished” the third time. They don’t know some of the twists and additional scenes I’ve put in since then, but they know my characters. As I described what had happened with the protagonist in the new version, they both interrupted me, nearly simultaneously, and objected.
“He wouldn’t do that!” “Wait – who did you say? No! That’s not him.”
At this, my head cleared and I took a breath—and saw that they were 100% correct.
That’s not to say that I shouldn’t muddy up my protagonist. He needs it. He’s not real and relatable without selfish motives and negative impulses and actions. But did you notice how I described the revisions in the paragraphs above? I didn’t even do it on purpose – I just noticed it as I re-read things in the process of writing this article.
Look at the paragraph about the changes in the secondary characters, and compare my wording with the paragraph in which I describe the changes in the protagonist. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Okay, did you catch it?
The secondary characters made their own changes. I followed their lead. The antagonist “became,” “thought,” “behaved.” The other secondary character “keeps” secrets, and her motives “are grubby.”
But in the case of the protagonist, I made the changes. I “gave him violent tendencies” and “made sure” he did something with them. I became the orchestrator, the puppeteer—the obvious, heavy-handed, dictatorial writer. I didn’t follow one of my favorite bits of writerly advice, from Andres Dubus III, to “sit in the back seat and let the character drive.”
So I went back in, and undid all my bossy mandates and let the character tell me what he’d do, and what he’d regret, and what would give him shame and haunt him. The actions were much more subtle, and he tried much harder to suppress them—but that’s true to who he is. Not perfect, but trying very hard to be.
I left that writing session feeling sad for my character, and disappointed in some of the things he’d done. But I was not uneasy and out of sync like I’d felt before.
Now for a real-life twist: I got an email right in the middle of writing this article. It was from my agent, kindly and politely declining to continue to represent me (our contract had expired, so re-signing was contingent on the outcome of this rewrite). My book still doesn’t have enough edginess for her taste, so the agency doesn’t feel as if they’re the right ones to represent me from this point forward.
With this in mind, perhaps the conclusion I was leading toward in this piece will ring hollow to you. Maybe you’ll decide to discard all that I’ve learned through this last revision process, since I lost an agent over it. But you know what? I don’t regret the choices I’ve made for this rewrite, even in the face of this slightly jarring outcome that has me more than a little bit nervous.
I still believe that the book, as it stands, represents the story I want to tell. It is true to my characters. It is a book I am proud of, though I’m willing to go back in for more rewrites if another agent decides to sign me.
So I’m going to conclude this article in precisely the way that I originally intended. Here it is: don’t force your characters to be something they’re not. Don’t go so far in your revisions that you no longer recognize those people that were conceived, born, and grew up in your head. If they aren’t right for every agent, every editor, every reader, that’s okay. I don’t like every book I read. I don’t like every song I hear. I don’t like every person I meet.
Let the character decide what he will do in the face of the obstacles in front of him. Let the character lead the story, and let the story lead you. Not your fears of remaining unpublished and your attempts to please every audience. Write the story, employing all your knowledge about pacing, story arc, craft, and language. And revise like a crazy person to make it better.
Just make sure you know when to stop.