Tag Archives: believability

Yikes! My Character’s Bipolar: Keeping Characters Consistent

2438792982_6e89624d17_zWriting a novel is a long process. Not only that, but when you’re writing 80,000 or more words, there are numerous chances for inconsistencies to crop up. This includes character inconsistences. The best example I can give you is from a novel I read over a year ago. The protagonist is falling for Character B. Introduce Character C. Character C is a much more likeable character than B, so much so that I wanted B to disappear. The author must have realized that she made C too likeable because from one page to the next (and I mean this literally, as in from page 126 to page 127) C went from nice caring guy to arrogant bad guy. The change was abrupt, made no sense, and made me question the author’s writing ability. In other words, I no longer trusted the author.

That is a problem.

Even if your goal is to have an unreliable narrator, readers need to trust you as the author. But that’s a blog post for another time.

Character consistency is when a character acts in line with how he is expected to act. If your character has an extreme fear of heights, he will not cross a thirty foot high swinging bridge over a gorge (unless there is an excellent reason for him to do so, say if he is protective of his little sister and she is trapped on the bridge and panicking/about to fall to her death).

How do you ensure your characters are consistent?

The best way is to keep track of your characters. Use a separate Word document or a notebook and jot down relevant character details. This includes important events that happen to them.

A cool thing to do is to think of several situations and then dump your character into the middle of them to see how he’d react. For example, your character witnesses two people assaulting a third person. What would your character do? Perhaps this situation would never occur in your novel. It’s still important to know how your character reacts because you need to know what sets your character off, etc. You need to know your character’s core personality – what makes your character believable as a unique, stable individual – and the only truly effective way to do that is to put your character in pressure-filled situations.

There’s a reason many authors say that they don’t know their characters until a third of the way through their novel (and then have to go back and edit the beginning of the novel). Figure out who your character is ahead of time and your chances of running into character inconsistencies while writing your novel will decrease.

(If you think character inconsistencies aren’t a big deal, they are. Readers will notice when a person acts out of character, and if there’s not a good reason for that breach in character, readers will be annoyed/angered/confused…they’ll experience some sort of negative emotion that might be strong enough to make them put the novel down.)

Other ways to keep your characters consistent include character motivation (knowing your character’s goals, what they want and need), knowing the direction of the story (where is the plot going, how is the story going to end), and being aware of your character’s limits (what would break your character). To achieve these things requires you to write at least elementary character and plot outlines, which may seem like a waste of time where you could be working on your novel, but by taking the time to get to know your characters beforehand, you’ll make your life much easier in the long run.

Writing a novel is fun. Going back and ripping it apart because of a tremendous number of inconsistencies (perhaps having to rewrite huge swaths of your novel), not so much.

How do you keep your characters consistent?

(Photo courtesy of David Yu.)

Ka-Pow! Writing Action Scenes in Novels

Think back to some of the most exciting scenes in novels you’ve read. Most of those scenes probably have a lot of tension and include some sort of action. I can think of Harry Potter facing off with Voldemort, Katniss with the tracker jackers, sword fighting in The Princess Bride, the Battle of the Hornburg (aka Battle of Helm’s Deep) from The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, etc.

Kapow

What is it about these scenes that make them memorable? Why are they successful?

  1. They are fast-paced.

A quick pace makes for heightened tension…and readers flipping through pages because they want to know what’s happening. Just make sure you don’t move so fast that readers get lost. You want your characters, and the plot, to move forward. Sometimes you want there to be chaos – for instance, if you’re writing a war scene with soldiers and explosions – but you want an organized chaos. You, as the author, need to know what’s going on at all times, even if your characters don’t.

  1. They advance the plot.

Action scenes can and should provide vital pieces of information, whether it’s about the protagonist or the antagonist. They should move the plot forward. If an action scene doesn’t serve a purpose, why is it in the book? To just show how cool the protagonist is? That’s not a very good reason on its own. However, too much information becomes extraneous, can slow down the pace, and clog up the action. During action scenes concentrate on the main characters, their senses, emotions, and movements, and the new piece(s) of information.

  1. The protagonist is forced to take decisive action/make quick decisions.

Whenever the protagonist is forced to make decisions based on instinct rather than logical analysis, the tension ratchets up. Instinctual responses, such as fight or flight, create faster responses, quicker pacing, and can produce unexpected consequences (both good and/or bad). By having unexpected consequences as a result of an action scene, drama is increased.

  1. They have an underdog.

UnderdogHave you ever seen a wrestling match? It’s pretty boring. Whenever you have two or more evenly matched opponents the stakes aren’t high enough for the action scene. There needs to be an underdog, and that underdog must find a way to rise above the odds and win. If the underdog (most likely your protagonist) is fighting to stay alive, to save another’s life, for freedom, or for some other purpose, then readers have someone to root for. More than that, readers have someone they want to root for.

  1. Characters are revealed.

How the protagonist fights, whether he chooses to fight or not, etc. shows readers a lot about the protagonist. You know the old saying of actions speak louder than words? It applies here. Your protagonist might be a black belt or have served in the military, but may choose to not fight. Knowing that the protagonist could seriously injure the opponent, but chooses not to says a lot about that character. Same goes for someone who would rather mind her own business, but then sees an injustice occurring and can’t let it go.

When a character is forced to make quick decisions, his true personality comes out. This is because he doesn’t have time to think about what he should show the world. He doesn’t think about what he wants to show the world. He just acts.

Bottom line: think about what you’re saying/showing about your characters through their actions.

  1. The fighting/action is unique.

I read a novel a while ago where within the first five chapters there were two action scenes. However, they were nearly identical, and both ended with the same result. It was repetitive and unnecessary. When you have action scenes, make them unique. Each scene should have a different outcome. Make each fight/action scene (because fight and action scenes aren’t always once and the same) special. You want readers to remember each action scene. If they can’t, then you need to go back and make sure each conflict is solved in a different manner.

  1. The scene(s) can be visualized and felt.

fraser1Give a close in view of the fight. Does the protagonist hear her jacket being ripped? Does she taste blood in her mouth? Is there a crack of a bone breaking? What’s going on her head? Providing both external and internal images and feelings allow readers to experience the action along with the protagonist. Plus, by keeping a close in view (think of it as pulling a camera in close) you heighten tension. The protagonist may not know what happened to her partner or the person she’s trying to protect. There may be so many attackers or so much going on that she can’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

Something to watch out for is balance. Action scenes are great. They’re necessary in stories, but they must be balanced out by other scenes. If there are too many action scenes, or if the action scene stretches on too long, readers will skim the scene in order to find out what happens.

For clarity in action scenes, why not try blocking them out? Use your friends and/or family. Have them each take on the role of a character and stage them in a room or backyard. Move them around as you would actors or chess pieces. This will help you visualize the scene and will allow you to hear input from your friends/family about whether or not they think a character’s movements are realistic.

Remember each character, no matter how small of a role they play, have motivations, dreams, fears, and goals. Their movements, especially in tension-filled action scenes reflect all those things.

What’s the most important part of an action scene to you?

(Photos courtesy of Yellow Hall StudioJeremy Epstein, and Reeling.)