You’ve just finished the first draft of your novel; what now? First, I’d check the big picture of your story. Does your main character and the antagonist develop and do the stakes increase throughout your story? Do you have a fully rounded antagonist and fully developed secondary characters, or is your main character facing a stereotypical villain with the aid of allies who exist solely to help them achieve their goals? Do you have realistic tension in relationships between key characters? Does each chapter actually need to be in your story? And once all of the above is looking good, is the tone (relatively) consistent throughout?
This checklist will unpack all of these things to help you evaluate character development, character arcs and story tension throughout your novel.
Main Character & Antagonist
First things first: what drives your main character and antagonist? If both are human, why do they believe they are right? How do they believe what they want will make things better? And for who?
Have you made their motivations clear throughout the story (when relevant)?
Main Character Considerations
To check your character arc is on track and that each chapter contributes to the development of your MC (main character) or point of view (POV) character’s arc, here’s a few questions.
What does your main MC want? What do they think is in their way? What’s actually in their way? Does their goal change as they learn and grow throughout the story? How?
Which is the sequence of steps your pov characters take to achieve their goals?
What obstacles do they face along the way?
When do internal demons, doubtful or worried allies or ‘friends’ with conflicting interests hold them back?
At which point do the characters learn or discover things which aid their ultimate success?
When do they hit roadblocks, and does overcoming roadblocks help them grow and lead to success later on?
Is there a lie they believe and if so, what helps them begin to see and ultimately brings them to accept the truth?
Does every chapter do at least one of the above? (ie. does every chapter pull the character’s arc forwards?) If it doesn’t, how is that chapter pulling its weight? Has it earned its right to remain in your novel?
Whether your antagonist (antag) is a human, an internal force like self-doubt or an external force, here are some questions to check their development, and to check human antagonists are fully rounded characters.
What steps does the antagonist take towards achieving their goal? If the antagonist is a force of nature or inner demons of the main character, how do they obstruct the MC and at which points?
What obstacles does the antag face? If your antag is a force of nature or internal demons, approaching it this way may help deepen your awareness of and how you portray your protagonist(s), who are likely obstacles to your antag.
Does a human antag have revelations that prompt them to progress along a negative character arc? Possibly as they resort to increasingly harsh/ immoral means of obtaining good ends?
How does the antag respond to roadblocks? If they’re human, are they resilient, or able to charm and win over people who oppose them, or do they throw tantrums and become more aggressive —do roadblocks drive their negative arc?
Even if the human antag has a distorted worldview, does the narration from their point of view show how, to them, what they believe is rational and right?
If the antag is inner demons, does it counter the MC’s success with irrational reasoning, guilt or other powerful emotional reactions to story obstacles?
If the antag is a virus/ monster/ climate change —does it keep evolving in a way that threatens humanity, as humanity learns to adapt to/ combat it?
Is there a lie the antagonist believes and what in the story confirms and strengthens their belief in the lie?
Does each chapter in which the antagonist/ antagonistic force appears move the story’s conflict forwards?
Later Structural Edits
If you’ve achieved the above, but would like to kick your story up a notch, here’s two suggestions for doing that.
1. Make it harder for the MC. Use contagonists, insecurities or roadblocks to make the MC’s struggle greater.
2. Up the stakes. Now the reader knows what the story’s all about and everyone involved, threaten more people or increase the severity of the threat.
A trap with secondary characters is making them subservient to the main character’s goals —the faithful friend stereotype. That may mean you write secondary characters who don’t seem to have lives of their own, or whose goals perfectly align with the MC’s. So your MC and secondary character may co-exist in harmonious unity —not very likely, or realistic, or good for story tension.
Who supports the MC? Who is officially onside but disagrees with the MC’s supporters or challenges the MCs methods?
What are the secondary characters goals and how do they align or compete with the MC’s goals?
Are characters sometimes helpful but sometimes arguing? For example, do your secondary characters have any conflicting interests with the MC? Does this lead to rising relationship/ story tension throughout?
Do you have secondary characters who are very similar or playing a very similar role in the story? Can you merge these characters, so there’s a smaller cast the reader gets to know better and connect more deeply with?
Are character actions and logic believable and does backstory indicate why they are predisposed to be that way? (This is a good question to ask your beta readers).
As characters speak, act and pursue goals, are the biases, knowledge, prejudices, sympathies or passions that guide (or misguide) them clear? How do these things influence character actions?
Does each character speak with their own voice? (In dialogue and especially if you have multiple point of view characters).
Possible voice influences: socioeconomic status, education, are they speaking from a position of authority or servitude? Publicly or privately? To a friend, family member or stranger?
If all of the above is going well, I’d do an edit focusing on the internal consistency of character beliefs, opinions, actions, dialogue and voice.
Focus on Chapters
How does each chapter reveal what drives a point of view character in the story?
Does each chapter bring point of view characters closer to or push them further away from achieving their goals?
How do relationships or revelations prompt the MC to reevaluate their goal?
How often do chapters raise the stakes of the story goal?
Now we know who’s in this story, what journey they’re on and what they’re up against: What is the overall tone of your story? Serious and heavy? Light? Playful? Casual? A mix of deep, possibly dark themes and comic relief?
As you edit —how do scenes and character interactions fit with the overall tone? Do some scenes clash with the overall tone? Ie. are some scenes too light and funny, or too dark compared to the tone of the rest of the book?
This may not be an issue in chapter 10 (especially if it’s a grim story with comic relief), but if the tone and events of chapter one hilariously silly and innocent and then chapter two gets violent and nasty —the reader won’t know what kind of story this is. So I’d check your events and character interactions in the early chapters set the tone for the book.
Chapter Checklist by K.M Allan.
Chapter One Checklist by me.
Act 1 Checklist by me.
Act 2 Checklist by me.
Act 3 Checklist by me.