First off, I hope to see some of you at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, this weekend. Check the website for details.
This is part of an appeal for help that came into the website late in January from Alyssa: I might say something about a character, and then say something completely opposite that on the next page. For example, I might say that someone does charity work all the time, and that she is an awesome person to be around, but then later say that she would never do a thing for anybody else and nobody likes her. I can just revise that away, right? Or is that one of those things that is harder to fix?
One of my friends was reading what I had written, and she said that at the beginning she had loved one of my major characters, Eric, and only liked him more as I went on, but then around page eighty he started changing completely and she told me something along the lines of, "Well, sheesh. If I knew Eric was like this, I would never have fallen in love with him!" Is it normal for a character to change that much in such a short span of time? Because this is happening with a lot of my characters.
Michelle Dyck responded, As far as character inconsistency goes, I've found that something called 'Character Bibles' help a whole lot! You can keep them in a document or by hand in a notebook, whichever works for you. It's quite simple. You just list each character's name and jot down their personality, physical description, and any other miscellaneous bits of info you have. Then as you're writing or editing, you can go back to make sure you're keeping your characters consistent. For MCs, I give them each a separate file a couple pages long each. (And some of the info I make up for them never goes into a book -- it just helps them become real in my mind.) All the other characters have to share a file, and most of them only need a couple of lines. Anyway, if you're an outliner/planner, you'll probably want to put together these Character Bibles before you start writing. But if you're a seat-of-the-pants writer, then you can just add to them as your characters enter your story. It takes a bit of effort, but it's so helpful in the long run. Because who wants to wade through pages and pages to verify what so-and-so's eye color was or where she worked?
I’m with Michelle Dyck about the usefulness of a character "bible." There’s a questionnaire in Writing Magic that may help you write one for each of your major characters.
In the first instance Alyssa asks about, I agree that the fix is easy and we can just revise for character consistency, but sometimes characters undergo a troubling transformation because of a plot problem. For example, let's imagine that Mina, who's the best friend of our MC Ron, has been loyal and supportive. Then, suddenly, she rats him out to, say, the chief of police. The reader shouts, “Mina wouldn’t do that!” and throws the book across the room. (Let’s further imagine that Ron’s crime is very minor, not deserving of harsh treatment.) We’ve made Mina act against all expectation and against her true nature because our plot demanded that the police chief become aware of Ron.
My only unpublished novel, which I won’t allow to see the light of day, has this kind of problem. It’s called My Future Biography, and in it my MC Marita is an aspiring teenage actor who gets a job as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra is like an unpaid intern; a summer stock theater is usually in a rural or suburban place and puts on plays only in the summer.) Marita, who’s obsessed with acting, has an exaggerated idea of her ability, although she is talented. She’s convinced that the leading lady in the first play of the season is botching her role. So–and this is where the story goes off the rails–she writes a negative review of the production for the local newspaper and says mean things about a lot of people. This terrible betrayal changes the reader’s opinion of Marita and makes her totally unlikable. The trouble is that the whole plot turns on it; it was necessary to set up the lesson Marita needs to learn. When I tried to reread the book not too long ago to see if there was anything I could save, I was so annoyed that I couldn’t finish it. I threw my own manuscript across the room!
Sadly, I adore the male lead and one of the other supporting characters.
My Future Biography is one of my early novels. I don’t think I would make this mistake again, and so far I haven’t I haven’t figured out a way to fix the plot. The reason it’s so hard to salvage is because the problem involves my MC. Luckily for Alyssa, her surprising character reversals involve secondary characters.
So, what to do?
One solution is to suggest early on that a particular character, in this case Eric, isn’t all he seems. Alyssa can include a scene in which he disappoints her MC, whom we’ll call Corinne. Eric apologizes and Corinne forgives him, but a seed has been planted in the reader’s mind. We don’t have to do even that much. If Corinne’s sweet dog growls at Eric, the reader will doubt him.
Another approach is to show the reader the moment of transformation. An extreme example would be if Eric’s brain were taken over by an alien or if he were brainwashed. The reader would then totally get his alteration. But we don’t have to go that wild. Suppose Eric comes across something online that shows Corinne in an unfavorable light. The information is false, but Eric doesn’t know. Now he’s the one feeling betrayed, and his behavior to her changes. Or suppose he becomes friends with someone who dislikes Corinne and this person wins him over to her point of view. Again, we understand the change.
Here’s a prompt: Write down three more possible reasons for a change in Eric.
Another tactic is to keep Eric as he always was and give the bad behavior to another character, one who has been iffy all along. This doesn’t mean Eric has to disappear. I like it when my MC has someone she can count on for emotional support--Mandy for Ella, for example. Eric can’t save Corinne, but she can touch in with him occasionally when she and the reader need a break from the misery.
Here’s one more strategy: When we cast characters for a story, it’s helpful to think about the roles they’re likely to play. For example, in the book I started recently, Peregrine, my MC, is adopted by Lady Klausine, a childless noblewoman. Although Klausine is going to love Peri, she’s going to be hard on her, and her manner isn’t going to be loving. I don’t outline, but I do know that feeling unloved will be important in moving Peri through my plot. I’m defining Klausine as cold and demanding so that I won’t have to change her as the story progresses.
Here are three prompts:
• Write a scene that introduces Mina into Ron’s story. Make Ron like her a lot and the reader distrust her.
• Write the scene in which Ron commits the act that Mina later uses against him. Keep going with a story that involves the local authority (a police chief, a queen, a sorceress, or whatever you choose), Ron, Mina, and whatever other characters you need.
• Write a version of the story I’ve started. Your MC Margot has been adopted by a reserved, not very loving noblewoman, Lady Waverly. The loveless home affects your story. In the course of it Margot changes, but Lady Waverly never does.
Have fun, and save what you write!