Everyone involved in the process, you, your editor, your reader, your agent, your bookseller–every single person who is going to benefit either financially or emotionally through your books–have one perfect moment of alignment, and that is from book one, chapter one, page one, paragraph one your book has to be as uniquely different from all the other X fights/falls in love with/is tasked with protecting Y books out there.
I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings lately. I’m sure in writing 101, someone has told you somewhere to put your book away and let it sit for six months. He, she or Xe was really trying to help. I would say not only do not go back and edit it for six months, but do your darnest to actually finish the sequel or trilogy while you’re waiting for that time to pass. I know it’s hard waiting, believe me I have both the attention span of a gnat and the ability to delay my gratification of a two year old.
But in that time, something magical happens. By the end of the first book, you really should know who these characters are, why they are fighting, and why their fighting is different from all the other books out there. Writing the second (or third!) book of the series really lets you know what absolutely needs to be in that first book. I’ve written dozens of books in the past seven years, even with a three year haitus, and I have never gone back to the beginning of a first book after finishing it and recognized the characters that are in the beginning. No matter how unique I’ve made them at the end of the book, in the beginning they could be cardboard cutouts.
I didn’t set out to write generic characters and I’m sure most people don’t, either. The thing is though, no matter how unique the world or the setting is, to the editor or agent, there have been dozens of similarly shaped books crossing their desk. Once you’ve written your books, your only job is to go back and make sure that from the very beginning, your characters are your characters from the end of the book, minus everything they’ve learned on the journey. You obviously can’t start a story with your characters already uniquely awesome — that’s for their personal growth journey along the line. But you have to be able to show everyone down the line from your editor to that final reader that while this character might be in terrible shape now, you promise the reader, hand on your heart, that the character’s growth as a human being is going to be worth all the after-tax dollars and after-work hours if they stick around and find out why.