This past week as I was knee-deep in working on The Reanimator’s Heart, I put out a call for blog post ideas because I was tapped. Someone asked how I keep my characters consistent. I’m not sure if this is from book-to-book or from beginning to end of the same book, but today’s post will cover both.
As with all writing, this is covering my process and what works for me. If my way of doing things doesn’t jive with you, luckily the world is full of resources that will hopefully work better. *shrugs* It happens.
My Character Development Process
I want to cover this [briefly] because I do think the way I create characters affects how I deal with consistency later. I am not a planner, at all, when I write, so the thing my stories really start with is the characters. Usually, I have a vague idea of who these people are and what issues they might have.
For instance, Eilian Sorrell from The Earl of Brass began as archaeologist who loses arm and gets a new one that is steampunk in some way. From there, it was an easy jump to say what if the other character/love interest was the person who made the prosthesis. That’s where Hadley came in. I stewed over Eilian for a while. Who in the Victorian Era could afford to be an archaeologist and travel all over? Well, someone who is wealthy, so maybe he’s titled. But would he like being titled? His family probably wouldn’t like him being a globe-trotting archaeologist, so he might not have the best relationship with his societal status or family. These attributes set the core issues the character has, and from there, I can usually see a personality starting to develop. He’s the eldest son but the black sheep of the family. He loves archaeology not for the prizes or accolades (he already has wealth and status) but because he finds learning about the past to be a giant puzzle. It also takes him far away from familial expectations, which is an added bonus.
Now that I have some of the core features of this character, I pick what they look like (sometimes I have that before I get too deep into their personality), but the minutiae of them as a character comes from writing them. Often I just start writing the story and see where the characters take me, and if someone is being particularly stubborn or not forthcoming (*cough* Adam *cough*), I’ll do some free-writing or use scene prompts to see how they would react or what might be lurking underneath. I don’t use DnD character sheets or those 100 question sheets about characters before I start writing them. This is partly because I tend to think of my characters as real people, so I don’t necessarily know everything about them and that’s okay with me. I’d rather give them the room to let me find out more as I work with them. It also keeps you from writing yourself into a corner later.
I can already hear someone say, “But if you don’t know everything about them, how do you keep them consistent?”
Well, you don’t. Not exactly.
Consistency, Not Uniformity, is Key
From the beginning to the end of a story or the beginning to the end of a series, a main character should change**. They shouldn’t be wildly out of character, but there should be a difference in them between the beginning and end, that’s why they’re the main character.
**If you’re writing detective fiction or a thriller or something pulpy with the same main character, this might be less true as they tend to be more static or change far slower than typical 2-5 book series.
When we talk about consistency, we have to be careful that we don’t mean the character must be uniform throughout a story or series. Their experiences in the story should and would change them. They should be affected by what happens to them and their friends, for better or worse. If your character is exactly the same from the beginning to the end, there is a problem. Sometimes this is because your story is following the wrong character, and you need to reorient the story to follow someone else’s journey. Other times, this is because you haven’t looked far enough into the psychological and emotional changes that would befall a character making this journey.
The question you should have is what change is consistent with who they are? Let’s continue to use Eilian from The Earl of Brass.
When Eilian finds out his father has died suddenly and he is now the earl, his reaction is shock. He’s shocked and terribly upset because he and his father never got along, never made up, and he’s grieving for the closure and support he’ll never have while also grappling with the fact that the life of traveling he loves may be over forever due to familial duty. He isn’t a fighter, but his flight reaction is hampered by the fact that he does love his mother and doesn’t want to make things harder for her. Instead, he agrees to go home and deal with it. He’s doesn’t like being the black sheep of the family, so while he won’t conform outright, he won’t make things worse either. Eilian returning home is consistent with who he is. Eilian marrying whomever he pleases (his middle class, independent, capable, masc-ish partner, Hadley) is also very on brand for him, but him standing up for himself to his family is his major change by the end of the story. It’s his experiences in the desert and see what he could lose that gives him more of a backbone. Even having this new title/position adds to that strength in the moment, turning a hindrance into an asset.
Is he still consistently the antithesis of what his family wants? Yes. Does he still do what he wants? Yes. But does his willingness to now face his family instead of fleeing judgment make sense after what happens in the story? Yes.
Confirming Consistency in a Story or Series
- Read the entire book over again once you finish. Pay attention to how the character is at the beginning, how they act after the first point of no return, at the midpoint, at the climax, and at the end.
- Looking at those points in the story, does the character’s emotional/psychological journey make sense? Do we see a logical behavioral progression? They should be becoming better people or overcoming their issues or even becoming more horrid, but we should see change.
- This does not mean we can’t have some backsliding in the middle. Often, there’s a 50-80% plot point where the characters panic and revert to hold habits, which makes sense because progress tends to be 2 steps forward, 1 step back.
- If there are moments where your character acts wildly out of character, reel them in. At the same time, make sure all your characters are not reacting the same way. For instance, a quiet character may have a high threshold before they start yelling while a more extroverted or short-tempered character might react more swiftly.
- Remember that every major plot point should have some reaction or impact. Some will be long lasting, others temporary, but there should be a ripple effect all the same (some may take longer to come out depending on the character, trauma, etc.).
- In terms of a series, all of the above applies, but you need to pay attention to the progression from book to book while still maintaining the core of who this person is. If you have a trilogy or five book series in mind, you might want to think ahead of time where you want this character to ultimately end up. Each book should be incremental change toward that. After each book, see where they came from to get a better idea of where they’re heading in the next installment. I read my entire series/books with those characters before I start working on the next book. It helps to reacquaint me with the characters.
The key takeaways are: reread your work from start to end. Reread it often (with each new book or even when halfway through your current project). Make sure the progression is logical and that there are reactions to actions. And finally, don’t force your characters in a direction they wouldn’t go because it doesn’t make sense for them.
I hope this helps as you all write your characters and work on your series! If there is any topic you would like me to talk about, please leave a comment below.