Articles / On Writing

Character Consistency

How many times have you been reading something and out of nowhere there’s an odd change to a character that comes with no explanation? Nothing inconsequential, of course—something substantial, like eye color or body type or a huge personality change that goes unexplained? Are you the type of reader who would notice that sort of thing? As an editor, I have to be.

During the editing process, there are often changes to the story line, a rearrangement of the timeline, or both, and a lot of extra details are potentially removed. So it’s important not to lose track of the basics of your character—their voice and their physical characteristics should remain consistent.

The question becomes: How do you keep your characters’ traits consistent—especially when there could be a large number of them, depending on your story or series? The most logical answer is to keep character sheets for each—like a dossier.  What form that takes is up to you. Some authors choose to storyboard their character sheets, using Post-its or flashcards on a cork board, others put them on a whiteboard, and others still keep them in electronic document form using applications like Word.

What should you keep track of? Here are some basic things:

  • Name
  • Nicknames
  • Hierarchy of character – protagonist, antagonist, secondary character, etc.
  • Age
  • Physical Description – Gender, eye color, hair color and normal style, skin tone, body type, piercings, tattoos, glasses, handicaps, etc.
  • Emotional Characteristics – friendly, introverted, grouchy, dominant, mouse-like, etc.
  • Physical Reactions – nodding, blushing, cursing, nail-biting, frowning, eye-rolling, lip-biting, etc.
  • General Character Traits – photographic memory, horrible fashion sense, extraordinary abilities, hates cats, allergic to peanuts, etc.
  • Relationship to others characters
  • General background story, regardless of whether it affects the story line. As the author, you should know it.
  • Story arc for the character – does this character grow, does he die in chapter two, does she spiral into drugs and overdose?

characterThis type of character record is important not only to the author, but to the editor, as well, and should be referenced during all the stages of writing, revising, and editing.

Each character should have a life of her own and be a unique voice in the author’s head. Character records help the author learn about and become more familiar with the players in the story to the point where they’re almost real people. Once you come to think of the characters as friends—or enemies—from real life, you’re more likely to keep their characteristics clear.  Then when you’re reading through your manuscript and come across something that seems not quite right, it’ll be glaringly obvious.

Happy writing!

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