Writing

Keeping Characters Consistent

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.).
  6. 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.

organization · Writing

What I’d Do Differently as a New Author

Hindsight is always 20/20 as they say, and there are plenty of mistakes I made early in my career that I would not suggest new authors repeat. We also must consider that I published my first book back in 2014 when there really wasn’t a whole lot about indie publishing online and nothing as organized as we have now. Since 2014, I’ve published 7 books, 2 boxed sets, and 2 short stories, and have learned quite a bit about what not to do. My hope is that some brand new authors or authors early in their indie author careers will learn from my mistakes.

For simplicity’s sake, I have decided to number these:

  1. Start a newsletter before I published– A lot of authors resist having a newsletter because it’s more work or they don’t know what to say, but just keeping a very basic release update newsletter will help you down the line. Building a newsletter can be a slow-go, so having people involved from the beginning and funneling them to your newsletter in case your social media goes bust is a fantastic idea. I know this from personal experience after having my FB and IG hacked, locked, and eventually deleted. Any social media account can disappear at any moment, but a newsletter list can be downloaded regularly just in case.
  2. Know what constitutes a good audiobook narrator before producing one– This goes for any part of the publishing process you don’t understand. Ask others who do like that thing and see if they think it sounds good. I don’t think my first audiobook narrator was necessarily the best because I didn’t listen to audiobooks and didn’t understand what people like in an audiobook narrator. My narrator was more suited to nonfiction than fiction. I’ve since learned.
  3. Ask people involved in a program, promo, etc. about their honest experiences- sometimes a program sounds fantastic on paper when in reality it has a a lot of problems or limitations. For instance, Kindle Unlimited sounds like a great idea (exclusivity as a trade off for voracious readers). If you’re in the right genre, it can be great, but if you aren’t in a genre where people read voraciously, you may not gain the same traction and your exclusivity may not be the pay off you think it is. There’s also the trade-off of losing traction or not gaining it as fast when you go wide because you don’t have the same preorders and release push that you would if you published your books there for the first time.
  4. Invest in good covers that fit the genre from the start– I was lucky enough that my partner is an artist, and he was able to make me a halfway decent cover for my first few books. While this was great for my budget, they were not the best in terms of marketing since they didn’t fit the genre at all. If I was doing it over again, I would definitely invest in a professional cover that fit the genre conventions (aka look at Amazon best seller listings and comp titles ahead of time instead of making something I liked).
  5. Not publish a large series as a first project/publication– When I first wrote The Earl of Brass, I had no idea how long the series would be, especially since I started branching off into other couples. I don’t think I ever anticipated it being 6+ books long. The problem is that people need to read book 1 to read the rest of the series, and by the time you hit book 6, you’re writing is A LOT better and readers are still judging your series based on book 1’s writing. I definitely wouldn’t suggest going beyond a trilogy for your first/early major project because you will improve a lot and the difference will be stark from the beginning to the end of the series.
  6. If you were in an MFA program, you may need to do some re/de-programming– I graduated from an MFA program where some professors were very supportive of me writing genre fiction because, to them, good writing was good writing, but there were others who were vocal about how they thought it was garbage and that literary fiction was the pinnacle of art. Despite writing and publishing genre fiction out of spite during my time in grad school, I definitely picked up some bad habits and self-loathing. If look back at old blog posts from 2015/2016, I definitely got hung up on “upmarket” fiction and speculative fiction, which are nice ways that lit fic authors/publishers relabel what should be genre fiction. I came out of grad school ready to start fights over genre fiction’s merits only to find most people were totally cool with it and loved it. The difference was stark, so I wasted a lot of time trying to make my writing (as a product) sound good to lit fic people when they were not my audience at all. I think no matter the program, there will always be bad habits or bad thoughts you will need to un-learn as you grow.
  7. Learn that other writers are your coworkers, not your competitors– What I mean by that is, don’t treat other writers like people you have to one-up or beat. It just sets you up to feel like shit and to potentially treat others like shit. Early in my career, I felt jealousy keenly when other writers who started around the same time I did got traditional publishing deals or appears at cons or had opportunities I couldn’t get. When I started to have some success and felt people do the same to me (being bitter and suddenly treating me differently) as I did to others who got ahead of me, it was a wake up call to knock off the behavior. It was ugly and unnecessary, and I shouldn’t have had to feel it turned back on me to stop. It’s perfectly normal to feel pangs of jealousy, but you have to remind yourself that they may be ahead in their career overall, they may have different connections, or what they have looks good but wouldn’t be good for you. You have to feel that jealousy but still be happy for them. Trust me, you don’t want to be that person who alienates their writing friends when they get a whiff of success.
  8. Have a plan before publishing– This one seems like it should be obvious, but oh, dear reader, it is not. As someone who struggles to plan things because I have zero chill, I have launched books early or with little preamble because I was so excited for other people to read it. That was not a solid business plan. If you’re just publishing as a hobby, that’s fine, but if you’re trying to grow your readership and make some money off of it, publishing on a schedule or launching a series x amount of months apart is a much smarter idea than releasing a book because you cannot contain yourself. A lot of indie authors now have made videos and resources about creating a pre-launch plan and how to best utilize the push from pre-orders and pre-marketing. I wish there was more of that when I was a baby indie back in 2014. It would have been a major help to me.

There are plenty of other f-ups I have made along the way, but these are the ones that I think have had the biggest impact, whether I realized it or not at the time. I hope these help you if you’re a newbie or just starting on your indie publishing journey.

If you’re already an indie author, what are some things you would tell new indies to do differently? Drop your suggestions in the comments.

organization · Writing

How to Outline as a Pantser

I know the title looks like an oxymoron, but just bear with me for a moment.

Before I get into detail about what I do as a pantser, I want to talk about what I mean by a pantser, gardener, and plotter, which are terms I’m going to use throughout this post.

A pantser is someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” while they write. Meaning that they do no pre-writing or minimal pre-writing. Pantsers typically don’t use outlines, though they may have some idea of the direction of their stories when they start.

A plotter is someone who uses outlines, pre-writing, and various organizational methods to sort out the plot of their book before they start writing.

Gardeners, or plantsers as they are often known, fall somewhere between plotting and pansting, meaning that they may use some organizational techniques ahead of time but they may be scant or only used sometimes.

The problem a lot of pantsers and gardeners often run into is that they don’t like to outline because it sort of sucks the magic out of the creative process. Half the fun of writing is discovery, so when you get told everything in the outline, there’s no drive to discover. Then the next problem that arises is, if I have a beginning and end, how do I bridge those two pieces if I don’t have an outline?

What I would catch myself doing is constantly rereading what I had written in hopes that I would figure out how to get to the ending I imagined. As you can probably guess, I wasted A LOT of time rereading the same passages, and as the book got longer, I found myself skipping writing days to reread 100 pages, which then put me behind. A few times I tried to outline like a plotter when I got stuck and found myself staring into the void because I still didn’t know how to get to point B from where I was. I wasn’t a plotter and would probably never be, so this type of outlining didn’t work for me. Luckily I did find something that helped a lot: reverse outlining.

I highly doubt I am the first person to come up with reverse outlining, but I figured out this sort of retroactive outlining technique on my own after having reread the same draft every day for 3 days. What a reverse outline is, is writing out what happens in each chapter as you write them. So I make a bulleted list with Chapter # as a header, then put a bunch of bullets under it of the major things that happened. Sometimes I also include character descriptions, important objects or settings, etc. You can do this digitally on a Google/Word Doc or on Scrivener or you can make one by hand in a notebook or on index cards. Something I started to do as my story got longer is to color code the events. General main plot got one color, the romance arcs got a different color, subplots another. You could also do this if you shift point of view as well. That way, you see main points and how they work together at a glance. Here’s an example from my current project, THE REANIMATOR’S HEART:


Chapter One: Foolish Choices

  • Oliver Barlow introduction- he is the coroner at the Paranormal Society and is also a necromancer
  • He autopsies Mr. Hezekiah Henderson who was apparently killed by his own pet tigers (could talk to animals). He gets this info by reviving him briefly
  • His BFF Gwen comes in, she’s in the midst of an asthma attack. Oliver helps her, and she tells him that Felipe Galvan is looking for him. Oliver is flustered because he likes Felipe but begrudgingly agrees to go

This reverse outline can be as detailed or scant as you wish, but it should help to cut down on having to reread and reorient yourself constantly. For some chapters, these entries can be quite long, but it’s worth it. I tend to write these out after I’ve finished a chapter rather than after each writing session. This reverse outline should also help during the editing process as you can target where certain plot points/threads that need to be adjusted at a glance.

Something else you might consider after reverse outlining that helped me was micro-outlining. Half of the reason I use the reverse outline is because I’m not good at thinking too far in the future, but I often have scene ideas along the way with no means of connecting them. I tend to have a detailed reverse outline on a doc and another one of just major events written on index cards. Once I have the preexisting bits done, I make cards for future events I have in my head. As I work forward, the stepping stones to get to those events become clearer, so I start making notes (or note cards) for myself of what I need to do to get there. I think of this as micro outlining because it doesn’t take away from that discoverability aspect that I enjoy with being a pantser, but it keeps me moving forward more smoothly (as someone who forgets things, writing ideas down is key to actually using them later). It also helps me to figure out where to put things I want to include. If you’re someone who is very visual, I highly recommend using an index card based system for reverse outlining. It just makes it a lot easier to visualize what comes next. Plus, moving things around can sometimes jog ideas loose. If you are afraid of losing your index cards, Scrivener also has a digital index card feature.

If you’re a pantser or gardener who is constantly rereading your work or forgetting what you’ve done, I hope you’ll try using a reverse outline to mark out where you’ve been and figure out where you’re going.