A reminder of the conference I mentioned in my last post: The Gathering at Keystone College: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.
On April 17, 2019, Grace L wrote, I was just wondering if anyone has any tips on keeping characters consistent? My main character tends to be kind of contradictory in her actions.
A few of you chimed in.
Writing Ballerina: I have this problem, too!
I plan out my characters beforehand, so that helps a little bit, and then I write my story. As I’m writing, if I find my characters are contradicting themselves, I make a note of it at the bottom of the document in a section titled “Things to fix in next draft.” That section is filled with inconsistencies that I’ll fix after the general story is down. In my current WIP, I originally made her afraid of heights, but I’m thinking now that it won’t work with the story so I might take it out.
I also find it helpful to have people who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism read your story as you’re writing it to see if there are any inconsistencies, which you can make note of when they point them out.
I would also appreciate any other tips anyone else might have! I don’t want my stories to be inconsistent, either!
Christie V Powell: I second having beta readers. They’re especially helpful for pointing out things like this.
Melissa Mead: In what ways? People can act in ways that seem inconsistent sometimes, for interesting reasons. Or is it more that you haven’t figured out who they are yet?
I agree about CONSTRUCTIVE readers!
About seven years ago, my husband lost a lot of weight, mostly by exercising portion control. I loved the new slimness for health reasons and for how great he looked–and still looks, since he’s kept the weight off. But, once in a while, I wondered (out loud) if he’d been replaced by a Martian. If he were a character, he’d be acting inconsistently.
Here’s a difference between fiction and real life: David couldn’t tell me exactly what triggered the change and made him able to do something that had eluded him for many years, so he doesn’t know, and I don’t, either.
That’s unacceptable in fiction. We’ve talked about character change a few times on the blog, mostly about whether an MC has to change in the course of a story, and opinion has been divided, but not divided about making the change, if it happens, understandable.
This goes for secondary characters, too. As soon as we define them through their actions, if they deviate, we have to explain why, through dialogue or narration or future action. So long as we’ve explained and the explanation leads to better understanding–and possibly more complexity–of the character, it’s great.
The most charming example of this that I can think of comes from the Wizard of Oz movie. The viewer who’s paying attention notices that, as the story plays out, the lion, who believes he’s cowardly, is always the bravest, the tin man, who thinks he has no heart, keeps rusting himself with his tears, and the straw man, who wants a brain, comes up with the best ideas. I don’t think the audience understands why their actions contradict their beliefs about themselves until the wizard gives the lion a medal, the tin man a ticking alarm clock, and, my all-time favorite, the straw man a diploma, with a line that goes something like, “Plenty of people are no smarter than you, but what they have and you lack, is a diploma.” Then he gives the straw man a rolled-up document tied with a ribbon. The viewer realizes that these characters weren’t inconsistent; they’d been showing their true natures all along.
The surest sign for me of inconsistency is when I make a character do things for plot reasons alone. We can train ourselves to be aware of this, as in, Stuart, the character who always thinks of himself first, runs into a burning building to save a child he doesn’t even know. He’s done it because our plot needs that child to be alive, and Stuart is the only one handy.
Not good enough. We have to go back in and change things. Maybe the child can not be in the burning building in the first place. Or we can alter Stuart from the beginning. Or maybe we can have him trip over the child while he’s saving himself, and the reader will agree that he has just enough compassion to pick her up, as long as she doesn’t slow him down, and he’ll be happy to appear to be a hero later.
If we’re going to make our readers understand inconsistencies, we have to understand them ourselves. Why would Stuart face a fire and possible death, if we don’t want to change him or put him in the building when the fire starts?
Well, he isn’t just one thing. Suppose he wants people to admire him, which would fit, and suppose there are journalists present or someone whose good opinion he wants. Then he might run in, intending to stay just inside the door, count to thirty, and run right out, but the door collapses behind him. He saves the child because someone shoves her into his arms and he doesn’t even notice in the course of saving himself.
Yes, people are inconsistent. We change our minds about lots of things. We behave differently with different people. We have moods. Sometimes we’re our best selves and sometimes our worst. For our main characters, we can explain the inconsistencies through thought, dialogue, and action. For our secondary characters, through dialogue and action–and the MC’s thoughts about this character.
However, there are fundamentals that don’t change much. I figure Mother Theresa on her worst day wouldn’t steal from a poor person and probably not from anyone else. Genghis Khan wouldn’t be a pacifist for even a minute.
Before I got published, I took a writing class from the late children’s book editor Deborah Brodie, who asked if the writer had to know everything about a character before he started writing. I thought yes, but she didn’t, and I no longer do, either. I get to know my characters as I write them. They act in the first situation I set up, and their personalities begin to form and narrow their choices. In the next scene, they act again, and the narrowing continues. If they and my plot diverge, I have to change one or the other–
–which is why, based on as much of my plot as I know when I start, I imagine characters who will go naturally in the desired direction. If that’s working, we don’t have to do a lot of course correction. In my forthcoming historical novel, for instance, I needed to give Loma, my MC, agency in a time when girls and women had next to none, but I didn’t want her to be a modern feisty heroine plunked down in the fifteenth century. I wanted her to be, as much as I could imagine, typical of her age: focused on family and domestic arts. So I turned to a secondary character, her grandfather. I decided he would become attached to her and take her with him on his travels across Spain, making her a witness to the great events and also putting her in situations where she would have to act. But first I had to define him as someone who would take a granddaughter–without making him modern, either. I think I managed, though I won’t say how, and neither of them had to do anything uncharacteristic to advance the plot.
So we can create secondary characters as well as MCs who will keep our characters consistent and our plots on track.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Up until now, your MC has been unfailingly kind to her best friend, who is shy and not well liked by others. But after the friend has failed some sort of test and is feeling awful, your MC belittles him and calls him hopeless. A moment later, she tears a rose bush out of the ground by its roots. Without making her really be the villain or be under a spell, write a scene, or more than one, that presents the before and after and explains the change.
∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella finally snaps and tells off her stepsisters and her stepmother. Write an earlier scene that firmly establishes her subjugation to the family tyranny, and then write the blow-up scene, making her transformation understandable.
∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella not only does what she’s told, she does it perfectly. When she scrubs the floor, she’s willing to spend an hour on the tiniest stain. When she does the laundry, she folds even her step-mom’s unmentionables in such a way that they open up without a wrinkle. But now, in the scene you’re going to write, she loses her work ethic. She gives the marble floor, which shows every speck of dirt, a quick once-over and just dumps the unmentionables in the chest where they go. In a scene, explain the change.
Have fun, and save what you write!