The Problem is Choice

Recently, I started a discussion in a Facebook group* about the one piece of advice editors would give authors to help them with their own revisions. There were a ton of helpful answers, and I’m sure I’ll share more of them with you in due course. But today I’m going to talk a little bit about just one, which was EXTREMELY HELPFUL AND REALLY WISE. That’d be mine, obvs.

(And yes, I know, you should take all writing advice with a pinch of salt. No idea who said that. But this is less “writing advice” than a principle of good storytelling, and while I’m sure there are ways you could take this advice too far, I don’t think it’s in danger of becoming one of those strange “rules” you need to be wary of just yet.)

Anyway, my one piece of advice is this: Look at every choice your character makes and ask if their reasons for making that choice are clear, compelling and believable. No character should ever do something just to service the plot.

There are obviously plenty of other really important things you need to look out for when self-editing. I’m sure some people would argue that this isn’t even the most important thing, but for me as an editor, motivation is the most important thing, because for me as a reader, character decisions that make no sense are the biggest sin a book can commit.

I can forgive a lot. This might surprise anyone who thinks that editors are nothing but uptight super-pedants who will lose their shit over a semicolon (and I’m not saying I haven’t had my moments – I’m looking at you, The Cuckoo’s Calling). But when I’m reading for pleasure, and I’ve managed to turn my editor-brain off for long enough to get swept into a story, I can forgive a few typos. I can forgive clichés and clunky phrasing. I can even forgive when a city suddenly changes geography or it snows in June. Yes, these things pull me a little out of the world and make me trust the author a little less (and they’re all things, by the way, that a good editor will help you root out. Just sayin’), but I can usually get over it. But what I cannot forgive is when the author makes the character do something they just wouldn’t do, either because it’s out of character for them, or because it’s just not something anyone would do in the situation as it’s presented.

Authors should know their characters. They should know what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them angry, what makes them do the things they do. So when an author seems to forget that, and has them do something that just doesn’t fit but does advance the plot, it draws attention to the fiction. The plot is no longer something that grows from the action of the characters, but something that the author is making the characters act out. And that destroys the connection between the reader and the writing. The author has not treated their characters like real people who react and behave in real ways, so why should the reader?

So when you’re editing your own work, forget about the plot that you created, and instead think about the reactions your characters have to the situations they face. Have you given your characters enough reason to make the choices they do? When they act out of character, when they do something foolish, or illogical, or unreasonable, have you shown the reader why that is?

Where you find that a character is lacking in clear and compelling motivation for a particular choice, it might not be as much work as you’d think to strengthen that motivation. If it’s not convincing that your sensible character wouldn’t phone the police on witnessing a crime, a passing reference to a missing phone charger in the previous chapter can make it more believable. Even when the decisions in question seem bigger and more complex, sometimes the littlest change is all that’s needed. For example, a client of mine added a few lines to a scene where the main character worries about not being as good as her foster sister and wanting to be better than her at something, anything. So when, a couple of pages later, that character meets an older, married man, we see it through that prism of her sense of inadequacy, and her decision to embark on a disastrous affair with him even though she doesn’t particularly find him attractive makes so much more sense: here, finally, is a thing she can do.

In The Matrix, “we cannot see past the choices we do not understand.” In fiction, “we cannot care about the choices we do not believe in.” Give your reader something to believe.

(*By the way, the Facebook group in question is called Ask A Book Editor, and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. Authors ask questions, editors answer. Come join us!)

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