Saturday, September 24, 2011

No Matter What Happens, Remember Who Your Characters Are

This week I read a novel where a lot of interesting and surprising things happened, plotwise. It was a very active story and you couldn't predict where things were going as the events careened from chapter to chapter, carrying the characters along with them. Which is exactly the problem with this book.

Part of what made the plot twists possible was the author's annoying habit of changing the characters however she needed to in order to make them into people who'd fit the new plot threads. After about 140 pages of this I realized that I didn't know who any of these people were, because they weren't anybody at all. None of the characters were centered. This caused a great deal of emotional disconnect for me, because since the characters never became well-defined, I stopped trying to care what happened to them, because they were more like a faceless mob than a half dozen real people.

It is possible that, because this is a first-person narrative and the protagonist is blind to a lot of the character traits of the people around her, all of this shifting of identities is meant to be a sort of voyage of discovery for the narrator and the reader. Gradually we see beyond the prejudices of the narrator and find out who all her friends and relatives truly are. But on the page, it doesn't work that way, and you can see how the character changes exist merely to allow the plot to move forward in its clunky, episodic manner. Chapter after chapter, the narrator is saying things like "I could see that my daughter was no longer shy" or "I never knew my husband was so depressed" and the problem is that, if you're going for irony here, the reader has to have seen it when the narrator hasn't. No, the daughter was shy when the story needed her shyness, and she was outgoing when the story required an outgoing daughter. It was all very improbable.

So my advice to you is this: as your characters travel along within your narrative, take the time to ask yourself if each character would, given who you say they are, behave the way you make them behave in each circumstance. You should probably do a read-through of the MS with nothing else in mind than to make sure that the characters are consistent all the way through. My characters have a knack for being a bit differently imagined at the end of the first draft than when I started, and I have to spend time making the characterizations match up at each end of the story.


  1. Because I'm a non plotter and a chunk writer I my characters evolved a lot over the first draft and I had to rewrite most of the early scenes to get my characters to where they should be.

  2. Crap! Something else to worry about. I'm never gonna get the hang of this.

  3. I am in the midst of my novel's rewrite, and the question I keep asking as I edit is, "Is this consistent with the character?" One of the interesting things about a rewrite, after having finished the first draft of the novel, is that those ideas you might have had on page 1 about who your character was might have been trumped by who your character turned out to be on page 275. The plot lines are pretty much set now. What I am seeking to do in this first major rewrite is to ensure that my characters have the necessary depth and consistency they deserve.

  4. AMEN!

    As a notable somebody once said, "Characters are the life blood of fiction." If I don't have concern for your characters, I will never give a damn about your novel. My question: Since "show don't tell" is such a oft repeated litany, why are so many writers still doing it?? Frankly it's a mystery to me. So thank you for saying something that evidently still needs to be said.

  5. S.P., Chuck and Judith, that's one thing I'm getting at: who we (the writers) think the characters are at the end of the book should be who we think they are at the start of the book, but sometimes we don't really know until we get pretty far along, do we? What I find helpful is to start reading about 3/4 of the way through, reading to the end, and then turning immediately to the first page and reading to that 3/4 mark. Is everyone the same person all the way through?

    Judith, yeah: characters should be consistent. Yes, people can act in unpredictable ways, but if Penelope is a jealous shrew in the first five chapters, she can't suddenly become a loving and caring person in chapter six because it's convenient for the plot. Unless you show how/why she's had a change of heart, that is. But if plot is just pulling your characters around the page and you treat your characters as actors who can take on changing roles as the book progresses and you're not doing it as a deliberate experiment, I think you'd better think it through again.

  6. I'm the same way. My characters usually change a lot in the first draft, usually because I think certain actions would make the story more entertaining. Then I often go back and redefine the character...or I have to cut out great scenes. I've done both, depending on whichever element is more important to me at the time.

  7. I am currently engaged in reading through my work in progress 14 times, once for each main character. I should've color-coded the printout; it would be a lot easier that way.

    Okay, 14 times is a lie; I'm going to read it four times, but each read-through is explicitly for character continuity and I'm looking at a different group of characters each time. It's revealing to look at the story this way. Interestingly enough, a lot of significant changes can be made simply by choosing different adjectives. So far I haven't had to make any big changes, though I have certainly had to alter the meaning of actions or statements.

  8. Wow, Scott, I'm relieved you're not reading it through 14 times! I hope you'll update us on your thoughts after you finish the four readthroughs. One exercise I find useful is to write little vignettes about my characters' lives before the story starts - their first kiss, or first time abroad, or whatever. It's not anything I'll ever incorporate, or even mention, in the story, but it helps me get to know them better. Like sitting down for a long heart-to-heart with a new friend. But even still I have to work on keeping an eye on consistency.

  9. I'm always afraid that I do this in my fiction and try very hard to let the characters drive the plots rather than the other way around.

    I remember you talked about something like this before - about characters not being someone completely different by the end of a book - only something ABOUT them is.

    Also, I think that's very cool about reading your book through several times for each character! That's a great idea.

    One of the things I loved most about having an editor go through Monarch was that she caught some things like this.


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