Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Keeping your Characters Consistent

Consistency makes for a good lemon meringue pie—you don’t want globules of lemon ruining the texture of the smooth filling. And consistency makes a good story—you certainly don’t want globules of untruth ruining the texture of your readers’ belief. I admit I’m stretching for an analogy, but still, the point is that readers will forgive a writer almost anything except inconsistencies that interrupt the flow of the story.

I once started to read a book where a man spirited away the Shah of Iran. According to the author, the Shah lived fifteen years beyond his supposed death in 1980. The operation was so secret and so successful that no one knew about it. But… It took only this one very high profile achievement to assure a solid client base for the man. Supposedly, word travels quickly in the very elite circles of power, and so the demand for the man’s services was always in excess of his ability to produce.

What??? If no one knew that the Shah survived his death, how could word travel? And if word did travel, how could high massesprofile clients remain “dead,” especially since most of them were hiding from those in the elite circles of power? The inconsistency took me out of the story, and I never did finish reading the book.

It’s almost impossible to keep inconsistencies from slipping into a story, which is why self-editing, though vital, cannot be the final editing process. We writers see consistency because we see what we meant to say. Others only see the inconsistency. I am grateful to one of my editors for finding one particular inconsistency in Daughter Am I. The editor wrote, “It’s not clear here whether or not Mary completely removed her shirt. If she did, when she stood up and ran to the bathroom, then turned around and had the conversation with Tim, she’d have been completely topless. Given their feelings for each other, and their state of undress, it seems unlikely they would have been able to have such a lengthy conversation without biology taking over sooner.”

Oops. I completely missed that. Mary took off her shirt so Tim could massage her sore back, and when the massage turned heated, Mary (engaged to someone else) runs from her feelings and hides in the bathroom. Inadvertently, I had her brazenly opening the bathroom door, standing half-naked, and starting a casual conversation—not at all what my poor innocent Mary would have done. After traveling halfway across the country in the company of seven old gangsters (well, six gangsters and one aged ex-night hall dancer) she’d lost most of her naiveté, but still, she would not have flaunted her naked breasts.

Naked breasts may pale in comparison with unsecret secret operations, but the inconsistency could have dammed the flow of the story for discerning readers. So, the moral of this tale is, if you remove your heroine’s shirt or other apparel, make sure you remember her state of undress and write accordingly.

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This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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