This is the second installment of a series on my super wobbly, organic, non-specific approach to revision. (Do I know how to sell my ideas, or what?) In Part 1, I discussed how revision isn't mechanical. It's about digging deeper into the layers of your manuscript to create a more meaningful narrative for the reader. The story arc--the part the reader sees--is only the tip of the iceberg. Good revision lies beneath the surface. I'm calling it the Iceberg Model:
The first thing we're going to address in revision is character motivation.
Many writers know the basic plot of their novel before they ever set pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard, as the case may be). Don't get me wrong. It's really, really important to have a solid plot in place. But the danger lies in giving short shrift to character motivation. The temptation is to shoehorn vague motives into an existing plot. The problem with that is that your plot only works if it is inherently connected to and driven by your characters' deepest desires. This can feel a bit chicken-and-the-egg-ish, but it isn't. A character's motive shouldn't fit the plot. The plot should be a result of how the characters act on their desires.
Basically, if something isn't working in your story, the odds are good that it's related to a lack of connectedness between a character's motivation and the action of the plot. When that happens, you either need to dig deeper into the character's desire, or rewrite the plot so that the character is acting on desire. The moral: sometimes you have to change the plot so that it responds to a character's motivation.
THE BIRD AND THE BLADE is a retelling of an existing story, one that has been retold many times over, although few people are familiar with it today. The hero of the original tale "Prince Khalaf and the Princess of China" is, of course, Prince Khalaf, but I wanted to use this story to examine what female heroism looks like. So my retelling shifts the point of view to a secondary character, a slave girl who appears in every version of the story. I've created a new character from this prototype, a young woman named Jinghua. That said, I knew from the beginning that I didn't want to change the basic course of events of the story and, most especially, I didn't want to change the ending. The ending is the whole reason why I wanted to retell this story in the first place.
The challenge with a retelling, especially one that sticks to the plot structure already in place, is that you really, really, really have to do some legwork to make sure that the plot results from characters acting on their desires. In this case, I was very clear on the motives for two of the three main characters from the get-go: Prince Khalaf and, even more so, Khalaf's cantankerous father, Timur Khan. The character whose motives eluded me for literally years was the new protagonist, Jinghua. For that reason, drafts 1-4 featured a protagonist who was simply carried along with the action of the story, powerless and without agency. That doesn't exactly make for a scintillating read.
In this scenario, I had two choices: Either figure out Jinghua's deepest desires to give her agency, or change the events of the plot so that they grew organically out of the protagonist's motivation and her response to conflict. Normally, I would suggest the latter. But in this case, because Jinghua's action at the end of the book is the central metaphor of the whole shebang, I had to go with the first option. Hopefully, it worked. Time will tell.
My current project is a YA fantasy (about which I have whined extensively here, here, and here), not a retelling, so the revision process has been different from THE BIRD AND THE BLADE. As I read through the first draft of that book, it seemed to me that the protagonist wasn't responding to the events of the plot in a way that made sense. In particular, she makes the choice, on several occasions, to continue on a journey with the story's other POV when her reasons for doing so seem pretty shoddy, particularly early on. So as I've revised the novel, I've tweaked the action of the plot and dug deeper into the protagonist's desires in response. At the beginning of the book, I've taken away her choice. In once instance, she's threatened at sword point. In another, she's literally unconscious so that the second POV has to carry her. As the story progresses, she's motivated by her need for the approval of her father figure, so it makes sense (I hope!) that she would continue on a journey with a character she would normally view as an enemy. And I'm far from finished. As I continue to revise this manuscript, I'm going to revisit this idea again and again: Why does she stick with the other character? What happens when she chooses to leave him? Her motivation for these choices needs to be woven deeply into the threads of action.
So, Megan's First Bit of Revision Advice: As you are reviewing your manuscript, keep track of the moments when the plot doesn't seem to be working, where things seem wonky or inauthentic. Examine those moments, and ask yourself: Do the characters' respond to conflict in a way that reflects motivation? Are they taking actions that align with their deepest wants and needs? And if you find yourself saying things like, "But I need the character to do this thing because this other thing needs to happen," ask yourself: Does that other thing really need to happen? There's a good chance it doesn't. But if it does need to happen, you might need to do some more legwork to build up the character's motivation so that the action makes sense.
The moral of the story: Don't be afraid to change the action of the plot so that it grows organically out of your characters' motivation. Dig deep into your characters. Figure out what makes them tick. And let the story grow out of that.