So I’m going through final edits of my upcoming novel Rebel Yell right now. And I do mean final, final edits. This will be the last time I change the story or the characters. After this pass, there will be a final copy editing read-out-loud (which will double as the audiobook recording) but that’s it. The book will be done and ready to come out on August 15th.
The last and most major change in this pass will be a severe alteration of one of the story’s principal characters: Steve’s girlfriend, Jess. Jess is, without question, the character my beta readers hated the most. All of them want her to die, and some of them want her to die violently. Sharks with laser beam foreheads have been suggested as an acceptable method of execution.
I realized how much more interesting the whole story would be if Jess were more sympathetic, and Steve less so. If instead of a wretched termagant, I turned her into a misled, uninspired but ultimately supportive girlfriend who isn’t hateful toward Steve, but not good for him either.
In the current version, when their relationship ends there’s an overwhelming sense of relief with no corresponding sadness for the good times they once had. How could there be? The reader never gets to see the good times, because they’re only described in passing, not represented in the book.
So I went into the edit of the first chapter expecting to need some heavy, heavy revision of Jess’ dialogue and Steve’s accompanying response. After all, she was about to go from boring and bitchy to complex and confused. So I read the chapter through once, and then read it through again, to reorient myself to their conversation and choose what to change.
In the end, I changed three lines and added one more.
That’s all it took to completely revise this character, who came across as a harpy from her very first line, to a lost, confused individual too addled by drugs to realize how unhappy her partner is in their relationship. And suddenly, Steve is no longer the beleaguered boyfriend attached to an antagonistic shrew that he stays with out of…what, exactly? My readers were never sure, and neither am I.
Now, he’s a somewhat unfeeling boyfriend who would rather suffer in silence than be responsible for the woman he used to love, and who’s now driving herself further and further down a hole dug with chemicals. The fear of responsibility is one of Steve’s main character flaws in the story and the reason for his band’s continued obscurity, and the tendency to suffer in silence is an excellent metaphor for a lead singer who won’t even play a local show with his band for fear of what might happen if he puts himself on the stage.
All that change, all of that enhanced dynamic within the story.
Three lines changed.
With those three lines altered, everything else Jess says comes in a completely different context. Her first words form a frame that surrounds every further syllable from her mouth. Change the frame, and the whole picture alters.
It would serve the story just as poorly to alter every word from Jess’ mouth and turn her into a shining beacon of perfect womanhood of whom Steve is unworthy. With two exceptions, I want the strength of the characters in this novel to come from their subtlety and nuance, rather than their outlandish “tropeyness.” Because in real life, not every single sentence from our mouths is a perfect representation of our character. It’s in the defining moments, the first impressions and the stressful situations that we find our identities, and that other people assign us interpretations in their own minds.
So that’s my lesson for the day, and what to keep in mind as I go through the rest of the book. When you change your characters, or when you create them in the first place, remember: less is more.