Last year, I did a series of posts with some tips on how to polish your manuscript before submission, including:
- Dialogue tags
- Editing ‘as’ and ‘in’
- Similies, less is more, and where is the noise?
- You won Nano, now what?
I thought I’d covered a lot of the familiar editing notes I make in manuscripts across these, but recently when out with a group of my lovely clients, they were laughing about all getting tattoos of ‘and how does that make your character feel?’ because that is apparently something I’ve said to all of them on many occasions!
I’m known for preferring character-led books with a strong voice, so usually I’m looking for characters with big personalities who lay their emotions out for all to see. I don’t want passive characters who just observe the world around them, so I suppose I do use this editing note quite a bit.
I use this note when something happens in the narrative and the main character (MC) doesn’t react to it. For example:
He moved closer to me, so close that I could feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek. This was it, time for my dreams to become reality. I pressed my lips to his.
“What the...?” He jumped up startled. “Sorry, I didn’t mean...”
“Oh, no it was me! I’m sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Let’s just put the movie on.”
He dropped back on the sofa and wrapped his arm around me, like nothing had happened.
So in this quickly dashed off example, the POV character should be confused, embarrassed, angry or something! She needs to react to what has happened, and let the reader know how she is feeling. Otherwise we’re left guessing. This reaction could be done physically – ‘I felt blood rush to my cheeks.’ Or it could be a mix of emotional and physical: ‘My stomach churned as embarrassment mixed with the pizza now threatening a comeback.’ But we need to get inside her head.
Another example is when I see the MC witnessing dialogue between other characters. ‘Mum said X, Dad said Y, Mum said Z,’ etc. The MC is observing the interaction between other characters, but not reacting to what she’s observing. You need to break into this dialogue with the MC’s thoughts on what is being said.
Think about it like this – in every scene, a net hangs over everything your MC can see and hear. So when any movement or sound happens, a ripple effect means the MC is affected by this movement or sound. How does this make her feel?
People are constantly thinking and making decisions all the time and you don’t want to overload your narrative with too many feels, but you can’t just have your characters just observe, especially in first-person POV.
With third-person POV, you need to watch out even more for scenes where the MC is just observing and not interacting with what is going on around them. Anyone who has ever read any of Rainbow Rowell’s books will know that you can get tons of emotion and feels from third-person POV MCs if done well. Read her books if you want a masterclass on this!
So when editing, look back at your key scenes and ask yourself, ‘And how does that make my character feel?’
And clients, if you’re reading this, please don’t get those tattoos!