Character Inconsistency: Why it happens and how to avoid it

As I read more and more beginning authors, I’ve often see a problem that occasionally comes up in my own writing––character inconsistency. This occurs when the plot requires a character to act in a way that conflicts with the previous description of his/her personality. I’ll cite examples and suggest some ways to avoid this problem.

Example A: You’ve described Ben as a kindly old man living in your protagonist’s neighborhood, but a few chapters later you need him to race out of his house yelling curses at your main character when a vampire chases her and her friends through his backyard.

Example B: You describe your protagonist Mary as smart and sophisticated, but then you have her to fall into bed with Bill hours after they meet at a bar.

Example C: You describe two brothers as always fighting over the smallest thing, but then your story requires them to work together and nary an unpleasant word is heard.

In real life people are inconsistent. We behave one way with family, another at work, and another with our peers, but in novels, inconsistencies have to serve a purpose. In my second example, it’s okay for Mary to think she’s smart and sophisticated if the point of the story is to show that she really isn’t. On the other hand, if you show her get involved with Bill on a lark, but want her to act sophisticated before and after, your readers might not be willing to go along.

Inconsistencies can be fixed if you’re paying attention and catch them. In my first example, you can say Ben is kindly except he’s fiercely proud of the flower beds in his backyard. Then when the kids run through them, we’ll buy his anger.

The problem of inconsistency stems from two writing weaknesses––not knowing your characters well enough and not having thought through each step of your plot. If you don’t know whether a character is sophisticated or smart, you might play her one way in one scene and another way when it suits the needs in a later scene. You can also run into problems if you reach a point in your story where you need a character to act in a certain way without having laid the foundation for that behavior. If a major character is involved and you don’t go back and leave some breadcrumbs (hints), your readers may not follow.

One more example. In a draft I just read, the day after an extended family is attacked, they are welcoming when a stranger approaches. The author doesn’t want the family to kill or scare him off, but it’s likely they’d insist he keep his distance until they know what they’re dealing with. The welcoming behavior suited how the author wanted the story to go, but it introduced an inconsistency in how people behave that readers will find troublesome.

To avoid inconsistencies you need to know your characters and how the fit into your story. One way to do this is write a biography of each important character––not for insertion into the story, but so you know those characters well enough so that you don’t have a vegetarian pig out at a barbeque.

That also suggests you think far enough ahead in your story (a technique known as plotting) so that you don’t trap yourself by requiring a character to act “out of character.” Remember, while your characters are there to service your plot, they must also be true to themselves––i.e., how most people would behave unless you’ve laid the basis for unusual behavior.

Inconsistencies can be a creative tool when used intentionally, but when they sneak in, they can undermine your story and send your readers to the TV.

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