Evaluating character helps an editor anticipate audience reaction. Readers love imaginative settings, thrilling plots, and beautiful writing. But they come to stories for characters. Because of that, evaluating character forms one of the central goals of developmental editing. The editor ensures each of your novel’s main cast members (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) is compelling. They also take a look at your minor characters.
The Four Pillars of Character
When I’m evaluating character, I always look for the Four Pillars of Character. What does a character value, what do they want, what’s in their way, and what are they doing about it? In every bestseller I’ve read, the reader can answer those questions shortly after the main character’s introduction. And while the answers to those questions can change over the course of the book, the reader never loses track of them. Much of the character feedback I offer during developmental editing aims at helping authors clarify the answers to those four questions.
Evaluating Character Arcs
During developmental editing, an editor also evaluates character arcs. Editors apply one or more critical frameworks (the Big Lie, the Hero’s Journey, etc.) when doing so. Each checks that a character changes satisfyingly over time. The fantasy hero or heroine might learn to trust their power in order to defeat the villain. The romance heroine might learn to value her feelings to find love. The hard-boiled detective might learn to trust their sidekick in order to catch the murderer. Readers typically enjoy stories in which characters grow in knowledge about themselves (common in literary fiction), about the world (common in dark, gritty fiction of all genres), or in both (common in most other fiction). Character arcs are often most satisfying when they’re intimately related to the plot of a book, and the character can’t succeed at their external goal without changing internally first. A good developmental editor will check for all these things.
Avoiding Stereotypes and Cliches
One of the last, but most important, tasks of the developmental editor when evaluating character is ensuring the author avoids stereotypes and cliches. First-time authors often default to characters similar to ones they know and love. But if that wise old mentor looks, acts, speaks, and dresses exactly like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf the Grey, readers are likely to want a little more. More importantly, if an author stumbles into repeating racial or gender stereotypes from stories they loved when they were younger, they can accidentally turn off whole swathes of readers. A good editor will catch stereotypes and cliches, and understand when to refer an author to a specialty reader if a book touches controversial ground.
Evaluating character could fill its own whole series of posts, and I’m sure we’ll return to the topic in the future. But for now we’ll move on to Evaluating the Opening.