Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Characters: Character Consistency and Driving Forces

Characters, Part 12: Character Consistency and Driving Forces

Do you ever read a book or watch a movie and completely lose your shit when the brilliant, tough heroine suddenly forgets how to take care of herself when a big strong man is around? Or when your favourite cold as ice villain does something so stupid it’s not just inconsistent, it’s like she had a full frontal lobotomy between scenes? Characters need to be consistent, or readers are left feeling annoyed and betrayed.

In most cases, the cause of character inconsistency comes down to three major causes:

1. The writer disrespects the character.

Disrespect for a character often betrays blind spots in our own prejudices. EG: You are more likely to disrespect a character's agency and personality if you are more likely to disrespect a real person from the same group. If you have a low opinion of lawyers, you may be more likely to forget your lawyer characters has an MBA from Harvard and have her do something stupid. If you think bikers are all criminals, you might not think anything of the having the Harley loving, leather jacket wearing father flirt with a teenage waitress.

Because our own views and values are very difficult to change and we are often blind to them, we can be very resistant to feedback when we are told we are treating these types of characters unfairly. Admitting we are being prejudice to the character means admitting we are being prejudice to those people in real life.

This is usually the problem in all cases where a female character is being used to motivate a male character. EG: The love interest is kidnapped.

2. The writer is struggling to resolve a plot point or conflict and sacrifices character to fix it.

This is probably the most common reason for main characters inconsistencies. It's those points in the synopsis where you write 'major twist happens here' or 'somehow they escape'. Those plot elements you are struggling with when you plan, which, surprise surprise, you are still struggling with when you try and write. Because you never got around to planning them in the first place. Or, if you are a pantser, it will just be the scenes you find yourself a bit stuck on. You're looking for a solution. Any solution. And if after hours, days or even weeks of block you come up with some idea you're going to run with it. Even if it means one of the characters does something contradictory.

Don't let yourself end up in this situation. Figure out difficult plot points before you write. It will save you a lot of re-writes if you realise you have written yourself into a need to scrap a lot of the material. Also, when you are really struggling, having a writer's group or a close knit circle of writer friends can really help. Let them see your outline. Ask for their feedback and advice. Sometimes all you need is another perspective.

3. The writer is oblivious to the inconsistency, because they are so wrapped up in the character's perspective.

I've seen this problem in my writing group. We love our characters. We know their deepest darkest hopes and fears. We empathise with them so deeply, sometimes we are oblivious to their faults. As in, sometimes they can be raging, bullying assholes and we are oblivious because we are so deep in their POV that we don't notice what they are doing to other characters.

This is where you need to be objective. And listen to your critique partners without getting defensive. If they think your main character is an asshole or a bully and you are deeply wounded because you think she is PERFECT, you may be empathising too deeply. You have to reverse the situations. Imagine if your villain (or someone you hate) was doing the same thing, saying the same thing, to your best friend. If suddenly it's not so cute/cool/understandable, sorry, your main character is a jerk.

How To Avoid Character Inconsistencies:

Remember your character may change throughout the book. It helps if you know what their arc is going to be. Where they start and where they end up. What statements they believe at the beginning, that they will disagree with at the end. Know their turning points. Let them experience those turning points fully. However to fix author error:

Question yourself. Listen to your feedback crew. Go back to your character profiles and go through the book several times, asking yourself if your characters' actions clearly reflect the intentions you had for them. Sometimes characters take on a life of their own and that is okay, as long as they're consistent and it's not clear you were fighting them the whole way.

Be aware of your own prejudices, both the positive and the negative. Read your own work with an impartial eye.

Driving Forces: The Tail Wagging The Dog?

I talked about this in earlier chapters, but often people bring up the concept of 'character driven' VS 'plot driven'. Are your characters driving the plot or reacting to the events around them? I think you need both elements, but some writers will swear black and blue one method is superior to the other. The truth is everyone is right. Different genres tend to have different focuses.

Romance is often very heavily character driven. Most of the conflict is interpersonal. Thrillers and action are very plot driven, it is the events, rather than the characters, that are driving the story forward. In any story you are going to have a strike a balance between the two, but where that balance is will depend on your target audience.

Knowing what your target audience wants and expects is half the battle. Which is why it is wise to read broadly in your chosen genre, particularly looking at contemporary best sellers. Contemporary failures are fantastic learning tools too. Learning what not to do is arguably more important than learning what to do. If you didn't already have a sense of what was good, you probably wouldn't be a writer. It's more likely you are lacking experience in what's truly bad.

Conclusion of the Character Series!

And that concludes the character series. Finally. After over a year. Look, I got there in the end, people. If you have any suggestions for new series or blog posts, please let me know in the comments. I'm always happy to oblige.

You can read the characters series from the start, here:

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