The Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I’ve Seen… and How to Fix Them, Part 2.

As a freelance editor, I've had the chance to read unique and fascinating manuscripts from some very talented writers. But as a freelance editor, I have also seen my fair share of common editorial mistakes, for which I have prescribed practical revision solutions time and again.

Because of this, I’m discussing the Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I see and suggesting ways to fix them in your own work. Last week, we covered the old adage “Show, Don’t Tell."

In this post, we’re going to discuss how much is too much (and how much is too little) when we develop characters and present their background on the page.

Text: "Editorial Mistake #2: The Pitfalls of Character 'Splaining." Image: A shoe about to slip on a banana peel.

Text: "Editorial Mistake #2: The Pitfalls of Character 'Splaining." Image: A shoe about to slip on a banana peel.

Character development is a relatively simple concept.

If you have a dynamic character, rather than a static one, then they will be changed by the events that happen to them.

In turn, the changes that lead to overall character development are propelled by the character's motivations, which should be introduced in the exposition and rising action of the narrative.

Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, these motivations serve as decision makers for your character and a blueprint for your writing. They should explain the character’s every thought, sentence, and action. 

If they don’t, then it suggests that either the character has grown past that motivating factor, or something is terribly wrong (e.g. another character is calling the shots).

When it comes to character development, the introduction of motivators is where I often see writers trip up.

This tripping up can happen in one of two ways.

Slip-Up #1: The "Info Dump."

While I need to know critical information about your main character, there is such a thing as too much information… especially TMI at once.

For those of you not in the know, an "info dump" is akin to those time-wasting monologues from Bond villains, which were always pompous, lengthy, and gave James ample time to plan an escape.

In a novel, an "info dump" is when the reader is made to slog her way through multiple paragraphs, paragraphs that chronicle via laundry list everything from the main character’s eye color to what they wanted to be when they grew up.

I see this editorial mistake crop up often in the work of novice writers, but hey, if that describes you, no worries! We’ve all been there. If you've created an awesome character, it's tempting to want to share everything you know about them with the world.

But again, there is such a thing as oversharing.

Don't be a Bond villain. Don't give your reader any excuses for "escaping" your book! Want to keep a reader interested? Feed us morsels of information at a time, just enough to keep us intrigued, turning pages, as we get to know this character.

Slip-Up #2: Implicit/Nonexistent Character Motivation

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a character's motivations are either nowhere on the page or very lightly implied. In these cases, the reader has to seek out the far-too-fine print in order to understand why a character does the things they do.

This is especially likely to happen if your character is in some way similar to you, the writer (e.g. age, personal history, interests). 

For instance, if my character and I are both twenty-seven-year-old middle-class women, I don’t need to explain to myself why my main character grabbed Starbucks on her way to work this morning. I likely don’t have to explain that to the reader either, because this particular example is understood to be typical for someone in the character's age range and income bracket. But if all of a sudden, she takes a detour to rob a bank, that would need to be explained.

If it isn’t, then the writer risks the fact that the reader won't be able to identify with or understand the character's actions. As a result, the reader may lose interest in the story. 

Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? We as writers don’t want to give too much or too little background on a character. We want the amount of information we give to be just right.

In other words, don’t telegraph character motivation into the book (i.e., “I wanted this more than anything…”), but do provide supporting facts, facts that are grounded within the action of the novel. Perhaps the #basic bank robber's motivation is she’s two months past due on rent and can’t get a higher paying job. Maybe her friends have set her up in some sort of fantastical dare. Whatever the case, make sure the reader sees those past due notices on her kitchen counter or reads the group text that gets out of town, so we are better able to believe it.

Action Items:

  • Write a sentence describing your character’s needs, wants, and motivations at the beginning of the novel.
  • Then, write a sentence describing these elements as they stand at the end of the novel.
  • Is there a change from beginning to end? If not, work on developing your character more fully.
  • If so, what are the causal factors for this change? How can you allude to them within the action of the novel, if you don’t already?
  • Brainstorm and build a foundation of supporting facts, then inject them into your manuscript.