5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

When a story isn't working, you may be able to save your character by stripping away everything else and rebuilding using sturdier, more developed bricks.
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by Nicole Blades

As writers, we've all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we're working on just isn't. We've tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we've come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won't let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

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The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book was justreleased into the wilds in November, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

1. Hit the Road

Take your character on a road trip, says Carrie Firestone, author of YA novels The Unlikelies and The Loose Ends List. “If the original story took place on a distant planet overrun with mushrooms, move your character to your hometown instead.” Next, write a scene introducing him to all the regulars at the local dive bar. “Does he hold his own?” Firestone says. “If he can survive the locals, he will thrive in your new story.” It’s all about changing the scenery, literally, and seeing if the character comes alive in the new surroundings.

2. Get IRL With It

When it comes to characters in his stories, author Victor LaValle (The Changeling and The Ballad of Black Tom) says he doesn’t make up anything. “I base most of my characters on people I actually know. I might switch gender, race, age, religion but there's always a real person at the heart of it.” To keep it real, he often hits the streets phone in hand, discreetly snapping pictures of strangers he finds interesting. “When I get home I study the picture (usually taken surreptitiously, like some creep), and try to figure out their history based on the clues their faces, bodies, and clothing tend to give.” Try using this photo trick to bring a fresh and energized backstory to your favored protagonist, then build the new world around them from there.

3. Dive Back into the Wreckage

Sometimes the answer to your character-story dilemma can be found in what you’ve already tossed away. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo) finds it helpful to wade through her discarded work after a little time has passed. “With distance, I can see what sentences really stand out as exceptional in an otherwise non-working draft,” she says. If you gather up enough of those gem sentences, you might be able to piece together a new thread to follow, one that is better suited to your voice or the strength of that character you’re trying to save. “Maybe your best sentences are when your character is falling in love or when your character is being funny or when they are at their most introspective,” Reid says. “Let the diamonds you find among the rough lead you to [the story] that you're best at telling.”

4. Analyze This!

When struggling with a subpar story, before you try to write yourself out of that corner, maybe go back to the initial spark and analyze it. Ask yourself what made you want to tell this story. What was the compelling part of the yarn that put the fire in your belly—was it a message, a literary challenge, a character flaw, a painful memory, raw curiosity? Sometimes going back to the impetus can help you to find your way by using a different path. (But be ready; the new route might not be a linear one. Prepare for twists and turns!)

5. Obstacle Course

Screenwriter and director Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married) taught me that drama is the quest of the hero as she overcomes the obstacles that are preventing her from fulfilling a need. Of course, those obstacles can be people or events, but they absolutely must be compelling and must keep getting in the hero’s way. If your protagonist is strong, but the story falls flat, consider changing up the obstacles. Even more, think about changing the character’s need. The shifting around of these key elements in your story could be what you need to launch it into a new and transformed atmosphere. And you can look back at the rocket boosters (your old weighty story) as they fall away.

Nicole Blades is a novelist and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Good Housekeeping, WashingtonPost.com, MarieClaire.com, SELF, Health, and BuzzFeed. Her new book, HAVE YOU MET NORA?, was released November 2017, and her latest novel, THE THUNDER BENEATH US, is available now. Listen to her new podcast, Hey, Sis!, about women finding their focus and place in business, art, culture, and life. Follow her on Twitter @NicoleBlades.

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When you take this online writing workshop, you will learn the methods of self-editing for fiction writers to ensure your writing is free of grammatical errors. You’ll also dig deeper into how to edit a book with Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. Use his self-editing checklist to keep you on track and take the time to perfect your work. After all, you only have one chance to make a first impression on an agent or publisher. Learn more and register.

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