Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Art of Inconsistency




As writers, we hear a lot about the importance of consistency. A character who is cowardly on page 1 shouldn’t suddenly turn into a reckless daredevil on page 30. Or should he? I personally think there’s a lot to be said for inconsistencies. They’re a wonderful way to add richness and dimension to any character. I think they make characters a little more genuine, too. No one is one hundred percent consistent and predictable in everything they do. Even the nicest person in the world has a bad day once in a while or can encounter a situation that pushes them to a breaking point. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If a nice person is being taken advantage of or treated poorly, then perhaps it’s time they did speak up for themselves. Inconsistencies are a great way for a character to grow.

But yes, you have to use them carefully. If inconsistencies are too wild or extreme, or happen too frequently, they don’t come across as natural. (In fact, your character might just seem a little unstable if you get too carried away.) Even when used judiciously, inconsistencies can still feel a little out of place. I’ve found the best way to deal with that is to address them directly in the narrative:



On any other day, Marvin would have never, ever considered venturing into the old abandoned house on Maple Street—especially on a day like today, with dark clouds gathering on the horizon, a sure sign of a storm blowing in. But Emma and Jesse’s laughter still rang sharply in his ears, and he cringed when he thought of the looks on their faces as Brandon had shoved him to the floor outside the cafeteria that afternoon. Again. Wimp, they’d called him, their singsong voices making it into a kind of chant. Teeny-tiny, little scaredy cat wimp.

I’ll show them, he thought, trembling as he climbed the crumbling stone steps leading up to the crooked door. No kid in town has ever been brave enough to set foot inside the old Stallworthy House.

They said the Stallworthys disappeared so suddenly all those years ago, a teakettle was still whistling on the stove when their housekeeper came back from the market, but the family was never seen again. Nothing, not even the shoes in their closets, had been touched.

Maybe some of their old stuff is still inside the house, thought Marvin. If I can grab something to prove I’d been there—an old photograph in a frame or a knickknack off a shelf—no one would laugh. No, they’d never be able to call me a wimp again.



By acknowledging that your character is acting out of nature and giving a reason for it, you take away the awkwardness.

What do you think of inconsistencies in characterization? And how do you handle them?

photo credit: Big Grey Mare via photopin cc

14 comments:

  1. As long as you adress the change, make a reason for it, I'm all for it. I like characters to change and evolve-its real.

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    1. Definitely! Dynamic characters are much more interesting than character that stay the same. And yes, far more real.

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  2. Excellent point, Dawn! I was just giving someone notes about this recently. Basically something along the lines of: if A never usually happens, and you put it in there anyway, it's fine, but you have to have your characters react to it in a way that's natural for something that never happens.

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  3. You go, Marvin!

    Great tutorial, Dawn. I think this sort of thing, when skilfully done, is essential to fiction. I call it character growth.

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    1. Thanks, Michael!

      Lol, I kind of like Marvin, too. Maybe I should spend a little more time with him :)

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  4. Characters are supposed to read like people, right? As one of the most inconsistent people on the planet, I support the inconsistent character! :) It's human.

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  5. This is great advice by one of my favorite writers:) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. One of your favorite writers--Robert, you made my day!!

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  6. this is great advice! sometimes a character gets pushed to the changing point and the result can either prove to him why he never acted that way before or show him it isnt so bad!

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    1. Yes--a wonderful opportunity for character development!

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  7. I think the inconsistancies make for great chatacter development. Why is this day unlike any other day is what makes the story. great post.

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    1. So true! Thanks for the comment :)

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!