Tag Archives: consistency

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.)

Characterization According to Aristotle

According to Aristotle, there are four essentials of characterization:

  1. Characters must be credible. 

Characters must be credible as human beings. In others words, readers have to believe a human being, in real life, would do what a character is doing. In real life, people have strengths and weaknesses. They love and hate. They like certain things and dislike others. Characters needs to be able to evoke emotion in readers, and in order to do that they need to be like us.

  1. Characters must be believable.

Characters must be believable as characters. For instance, character A needs to believable as character A, not B, not C, but A. If readers believe that the action a character commits would be done in real life, but not by that character, then you have a problem. Put differently, characters must be appropriate to themselves. A king and a peasant are two very different statuses, and so they’ll act differently from one and another.

  1. Characters must be consistent.

Characters must be consistent to how you make them. Or, if a character breaks consistency, then it’s a purposeful break and is big news. However, for the most part, characters need to be true to their natures. Their actions are rational, not giant leaps of irrationality. No sudden character changes. I recently read a novel where halfway through I had to stop and wonder what happened because suddenly a few of the characters were completely different. And it was a very sudden transition – one page they were one person and the next page they were completely different.

  1. Characters must be good.

This doesn’t mean that a character can’t have flaws. It’s good for a character to be flawed. Without flaws characters aren’t believable, and perfect characters aren’t usually all that popular. What is meant by “good” is that a character has some capacity for good. If the character is bad or evil, there’s a possibility for redemption – that’s what makes villains so tragic. They have the chance to be good, but they chose to go against that path, whether consciously or not.

And if the character is good, such as the heroine or hero of the story, they can’t be all good. Wickedness is mixed with goodness. People in real life aren’t one hundred percent good or bad. Characters shouldn’t be either.

The best characters are those who are caught in the middle, who struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. They’re the most realistic and the most interesting.