Global revision and characterization

First, an example of global revision. Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was was published in 1984. Here’s a brief excerpt. Also available online, a PDF of the first draft.

What do you notice when you compare pages 38-43 (the brief excerpt) with just the second and third pages of the first draft?  What do the changes Hughart made add? Why might he have made them?

Second, Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself provides what she calls a “Macro-Edit Diagnostic Checklist” which can usefully indicate ways of thinking globally about your draft.

The second item on Bell’s checklist has to do with characterization and says in part, “Ask of your protagonist: What does she want? If you don’t know, develop the character more until you (and the reader) do” (88-89). In direct contrast with this is Robert Boswell’s essay “The Half-Known World” from his book The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction. Boswell says “There can be no discovery in a world where everything is known. A crucial part of the writing endeavor is the practice of remaining in the dark” (23-24). He argues that discovery is important for keeping readers and writers engaged.

Boswell continues:

If I were to write a how-to primer for the creation of characters, I would put together a different set of question than those typically posed. It might go something like this:

  1. What did your character forget to do this morning?
  2. Why does your character think he ought to be fired?
  3. What recent mistake vaguely reminds your character of a previous mistake she can’t name?
  4. What stupid thing kept her awake last night?
  5. If you met your character in a bar, what would she think of you? In what ways would she be right? What would she get wrong? What would she see about you that you don’t yet understand about yourself?

These questions won’t explain anything or anybody, but they may give you a handle by which you can pull yourself into this character’s life. You do not know what the character wants, but you may have enough that you can begin exploring the character in a narrative, and you may eventually discover it. (23)

I encourage you to revise at least as radically as Hughart and consider whether you need to know more or what you might leave out about a character.

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