Editing Your Novel Part 2 – Character

In the first part of this series on editing your first novel we looked mostly at plot. Is your plot plausible? Do your scenes flow naturally?

This time were going to look at how you build your characters. Im basing this on the crime genre because thats what I write, but it can easily apply to any other genre.

First of all, where do you find your characters? Are they people that you know? Or are they composites of lots of people? One of the most important features of your characters is that they are recognizable. I dont average, of course, that your neighbours will recognize themselves or that you may get sued by Nick Clegg or Lady Gaga. What Im getting at is the need for characters to stand out so that the reader can differentiate one from another. And so that they can believe in them, empathise with them. And above all, care about them. If your reader doesnt give a damn whether your characters live or die, whether they get the girl/boy or not, then youre in trouble.

Of course, characters from the same class, same kind of employment, same family, often do sound a little similar. And you probably cant differentiate all of your minor characters. But your main characters could nevertheless have something in their speech that is peculiarly theirs. Maybe its in their cadences, maybe they have a particular mannerism. But the reader does want to recognise them when they come on to the page. This is the way to make them come alive, so that your reader is urging them on to succeed.

Think of the novels of Colin Dexter. Inspector Morse and his sergeant, Robbie Lewis are both in the same job. But you wouldnt mix them up. And it isnt just because Morse likes opera and Lewis doesnt get it, but that does form part of it. Dexter uses speech inflections based on both class and age and vicinity to differentiate the two.

Its not a bad idea to take a associate of your main characters and truly write a biography for them. Of course, not all of this will appear in the book. But it will help you get to know your characters. You could already make yourself a template of questions that you could ask yourself about your characters. for example you could draw up something like this:

What are they like generally?

Eg what clothes do they use

Single, married, divorced?


Star sign




What about their emotional life?

Are they happy?

If married, is it a good one?

If divorced, whats the relationship with ex-partner?

Do they have children?

Was their own childhood happy?

Any emotional traumas?

What about personality traits?

Are they always in a rush, or do they take their time about things?

Are they organised, tenacious, a bully, a bit timid, quick to anger?

Are they kind, callous, indifferent, a push-over?

Do they have dreams, aspirations?

Do any of these characteristics make them enemies, or cause them to be less than efficient? Ian Rankins Rebus makes an almost fatal error in seeking assistance from Edinburgh crime boss, Morris Cafferty. This sometimes threatens to become Rebus undoing, especially when he gets an -undeserved- reputation for being in Caffertys pocket.

How do their colleagues, friends, lovers view them? Think about Inspector Jack Frosts relationship with the bureaucratically obsessed Superintendent Mullet, in RD Wingfields books. Frost doesnt let that get in the way of being a bright detective, but he must be a nightmare to manage. And this tension helps to excursion the plot in addition as the situations that Jack has to solve. Imagine having to line-manage Harry Hole or John Luther. But these stresses, these possible flashpoints, are what drives a fast-paced plot.

Do they have any particular strengths or weaknesses? Michael Connollys Harry Bosch is pushed by a passion for justice, a strength that can become a weakness when it causes him to take the law into his own hands.

Do they have any other attributes or concerns worth mentioning, things that create problems that they have to conquer?

for example, are they local? In Stephen Booths books, the fact that DC Ben Cooper is local and is able to identify anomalies quickly, and knows how get information from the rural locals really gets up the nose of city girl DS Diane Fry. In my own Hangmans Wood, DI Fiona Brightman has recently moved to Suffolk partly because of problems in her old nick, something she worries may follow her around.

Is there anything getting in the way of them doing their job? In the Inspector Lynley mysteries by Elizabeth George, Sergeant Barbara Havers has problems with her mothers deteriorating health, and sometimes this causes problems. And she really resents it when her posh, high boss tries to help, something she sees as interference and which sometimes causes hostility between them. In Hangmans Wood my DI Brightman has to cope with a husband who resents her being a police officer and the memory of a daughter who died. And in the second novel, Washed in the Blood, she has to cope with her fathers growing obsessions in addition as solve the case of two murdered children and a missing family. But shes very focused and tries not to let these affect how she does her job. Seeing how your characters conquer these difficulties could be a crucial part of the plot.

Im sure you can think of other aspects of character that are worth considering. Think about your partner or best friend and try and describe everything about them that you can. Then think about someone you really dislike and do the same. That should give you some ideas to play around with.

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