I will freely admit that this is one of my biggest problems as a writer. I’m so focused on moving the manuscript forward that I forget what I’ve written six chapters ago. Thankfully, it’s not major plot points I’ve forgotten, but things like what a minor character looks like. I’ve had to devise a system to help me remember all these fine little details – a notebook containing the details next to my computer at all times. I don’t know why it works, but it does.
There are two keys to character consistency in your manuscript. The first is on a macro level and includes things like the personality, desires, hopes, nightmares and fears of the character. It is vitally important that your character behaves in a way that is consistent with how you’ve described him or her. For example, I read a book over the Christmas break in which the main character was described over several chapters as having converted to vegetarianism. Ten chapters later, he was enthusiastically eating roast meat “with the juices running down his chin”. No explanation given for this sudden about-face. This is not to say that characters shouldn’t be unpredictable or make mistakes, but it is the author’s job to show the reader how this came about and how it made the character feel.
Let’s say you create a person who is noble, just, and honest. Then he betrays someone in a most awful manner. This action is uncharacteristic for him, so why did he do it? Either the circumstances leading up to the act of betrayal led him to an act of desperation, or he had been struggling mightily against temptation, or he is the opposite of a noble, just and honest character and has been living a lie. Creatively, there are many ways you could work out this plot point. What’s important to understand here is that if this type of inconsistency is not dealt with by the author, it comes across as disorganised and unrealistic to the reader.
The same can be said for other personality traits. A fiery and dominant character will not meekly submit to another without mitigating circumstances. A shy and introverted character will not become the leader of a group without some intense internal angst. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to have a character act out of character because it’s convenient for the manuscript. If you find yourself in this situation, you either need to think of a different direction for your manuscript or go back and delete the sections that painted you into that corner. Finally, remember that unless your characters are direct imitations of yourself, they shouldn’t react the same way you would in a given situation. Nor should they all react in the same way to a certain situation or circumstance.
The second key of consistent characterization is the minor detailing that I’ve already mentioned. Hair colour, the presence of a tattoo or marital status can very easily be overlooked or contradicted simply because you wrote that chapter six months ago. Prepare yourself to be constantly reviewing your manuscript to ensure accuracy, or hire a good editor. Or like me, write the details in a notebook next to the computer as a quick reference guide.
How do you ensure consistency in your characters?