Fix 4: Consistency

I keep planning on writing about naming your characters. If I keep it up it’ll be a bad running joke. For today let’s go with character consistency.


The best thing I’ve ever written was a 10,000 word short story I wrote over about five days to simulate doing National Novel Writing Month (I actually wrote outside of class, so I was one of the few people to be able to finish). It’s really hard to describe, but all you need to know is that the main character is a man in a psychiatric hospital; and he belongs there. When I started the process I wanted to write a Hannibal Lector type character, someone who liked politeness and looked down on people around. When I finished the project I was so, so very sure that the character ended up sounding really whiny and terrible. I liked the premise I had, but I thought I needed to start at the end and rewrite everything.


Almost half a year passed before I let anyone read it. I hadn’t edited it at all. The person really loved it. When I reread it I was surprised that not only was the character consistent, his progression into sanity was properly paced and gripping. Aside from grammar issues, the story held up perfectly well and I actually didn’t need to rewrite anything. It was a perfectly polished little gem.


This is to illustrate the point: you can’t often see up close what is very apparent from far away.  Character consistency is very important. While not exactly a commonly considered trait of a Mary-Sue, it’s actually a really important part. The problem with a Sue is that her personality/actions can jump from being a “complete badass” to needing to have her ass saved by the love interest. She also may go from being sad about her village being slaughtered to suddenly being terribly in love and happy about being with her love interest. For a point of reference; think how Juliet suddenly goes from being horrified that her cousin’s dead to going to bed with her husband. I don’t think Romeo & Juliet is a good play at all partially for these bizarre jumps in logic. Of course teenaged hormones being what they are, it might actually work like that.


Ever heard of mood whiplash? It’s when a movie/TV show/book/fanfiction/play/opera/radio drama/video game/whatever goes from very suddenly from one emotion to another. These emotions are often complete opposite (horrified to laughing). Now, you can do this by way of good story telling or comic relief, or both. In Steel Magnolias one of the main characters has a very dramatic speech after just having buried her daughter.  Suddenly one of her friend grabs another one of their friends (Ouiser) and tells the main character to punch Ouiser. It’s so random and sudden that not only do the characters burst into fits of laughter, but the audience starts rolling on the floor.


This scene exemplifies comic relief, but it relies on the trope of mood whiplash. Shakespeare is another example of someone brilliant at using comic relief. (Tangent: I just saw Patrick Stewart play Shylock in Merchant of Venice. It’s both hilarious and horrifying when he draws a dotted box around Antonio’s heart, and later gleefully run the broad side of a knife over Antonio’s chest as Antonia trembles so hard a guard has to hold him still… I’ve never seen anything so tense. The whole audience knew the ending but half of us were still hiding in our seats). Done right, mood whiplash isn’t painful to the audience, but allows for catharsis/drama/plot/characterization/other very good things.


This is generally is not the case for works of Mary Sue fiction. A lot of the problem comes from the fact that the characters simply are not given the time to grow. I remember writing a fic where Priest Seto falls for a servant. I had a(n actually good) scene plotted out before I went to bed, but the scene I wrote was under a page. If I had been able to write it now the scene would have stretched out for five or more pages. I was 13 at the time and simply did not have the skill to write so much. I couldn’t figure out how to properly prolong a scene.


The West Wing is one of my favorite shows because Aaron Sorkin is my writing idol. He leaves at the end of the 4th season to go to rehab (no, really). Stuff happens in the first 4 seasons, but a plot line could be drawn out over a long period of time. The episodes built characterization more than plot… but damn was it good. Then season 5 hits and new writers come in. More and more stuff happens. In the first 4 seasons maybe 4-6 really big things happen. The amount of big things goes up exponentially over the next seasons simply because the writers aren’t on the same level as the original creator. Aaron Sorkin has the ability to hold out scenes and events with amazingly witty exchanges and character growth. It makes everything feel more realistic. In contrast, the other seasons have a lot of stuff happen because the other writers have to keep having stuff happen or else the show will stop being interesting.


This is a professional example with the problems with new writers. You can tell ne writers because a chapter is only going to fit in the size of the viewing screen of your computer without you having to scroll down… it may even be smaller… for a new writer this is a huge achievement. When you get more experience you can easily write more.  When I was a kid I used to take the bus to school in the morning. I had set fantasies, and I knew exactly which ones I could run because of how long the trip was.  Eventually I couldn’t do the same fantasies anymore because they didn’t last as long. I started to get worried that I wasn’t able to analyze the same things as well. Someone suggested to me that I just became able to process complex ideas much faster.


When I was younger it would take me a long time to get a little bit of writing out. These blog posts take an hour, but I’m either writing constantly or pausing to look things up. I’m able to more easily come up with ideas to express that all link together; and I trust my writing enough to know that eventually I will connect my beginning thought to my planned ending thought, hit all the points I wanted to cover, and all of it flow naturally.


So what does this have to do with character consistency? Back in the chapter I described to you, the servant and Priest Seto fall in love in one very short scene. In that scene the servant goes from weeping, to uncertain, to happy. It all happens very quickly and so there’s no character consistency, and the character comes off as not human with how rapidly her emotions change.  Thinking over the plot now ((Priest Seto takes over his duties and if given a servant who helps him look after his brother. He falls for the servant and gets married; then his brother is killed in an accident. He’s hurt, but still has his (now pregnant) wife. Then the woman he loves is sacrificed to one of the gods by the pharaoh’s orders (to help defeat and enemy). Priest Seto loses it and helps lead the charge against the pharaoh.)) it’s not great, but I could completely make it work, especially since the OC servant is just a macguffin to help Priest Seto lose his mind and go to war with the man he’d loved and served before.  It’s surprisingly Canon centered except for one moment when the OC talks about her past.


When I wrote it, it sucked pretty hard because of how small the chapters were. There was no room for real development. I had to keep having interesting things happen to keep the story moving. Suddenly characters would be yelling or crying  just… suddenly. The characters lacked an emotional consistency that they really needed to make the fic actually good. I’m surprised anyone read it at all. ((Side note: does anyone notice that old, not good stories can get 56 reviews, but new good things can’t break into the double digits?))


Emotional consistency is actually something I still struggle with. I just finished a 24 page (7,000+ word) chapter for one of my fics. It hasn’t been posted as my editor is still helping me pick out the bugs. I wrote it over about a week and a half, on two different continents and over many different times of day. I’m worried that the characters will seem character. Every time I update a story I worry that the characters will seem like how they did in the previous chapters. Normally I do just fine, and once I stop being buried in the writing I can see that. Other times I need help.


There are a couple of things I can suggest. The first is to reread what you’ve already written… a lot. I tend to lose salient details, but those details make the characters. It also looks really bad when you forget from one chapter to the next (sometimes one page to the next) a hobby or interest you just described for a character. Rereading refreshes your memory and lets you fix minor inconsistencies before you get too far into the story, and those inconsistencies become big problems. This is useful, but as I can’t be constantly rereading I need other ways to help keep myself consistent.


I’m easily affected by the things that go on around me. Again mentioning The West Wing, after watching the show it’s common that I will start imitating the character’s distinctive speech pattern and speed of speech both in writing and in real life. In the same way, when I’m writing something I will pick a song or CD to play that helps me capture the mood I want for the story. Eventually whenever I hear that song/album I will instantly shift into the proper mood for the writing of the story. I easily connect events to song. I can’t listen to “Snow (Hey Oh)” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers without crying because it reminds me of New Zealand (a place I feel like is the home of my soul). I can’t hear “Running Up That Hill” by Placebo without instantly getting into the mood of writing characters for a book I was working on called The Frankenstein Children (A book I scrapped about 25k words in when I realized it just wasn’t working). When I’ve been working on this I have a play list of Lady Gaga’s newest album and Katy Perry’s first. Whenever I hear these songs now I want to write (since I’ve been looping them for 2 days all I’ve done in that time is write). 


For me, music is best way to get myself into the proper mood for a story or character, at least for the main character. But that may not be the best way for everyone. I know some people can’t write unless there’s silence, music is distracting to them. You might be able to listen to music before hand, but that runs the same problem as rereading. What you really need is a memory trick to help you remember the character’s personality. I use music because I travel quite a bit and always want to be writing. It’s also a great way to get focused when I’m home for the summer and my parents have the TV on. At the same time, one of my friends in high school noted that once I started working and I had my headphones on I went into my own world. I’d become very focused and productive and she’d have to physically poke me to get me to pay attention to her.  This does not work for everyone.


J.K. Rowling wrote her books in coffee shops. She would take her things and go write. For some people location is everything. Someone told me the best way to study for a final was to study in the room and seat where you’d be taking the test because your mind would connect the information with the room around you. In the same way, if you only write in one place you may be able to keep your writing consistent if you stay in one place. If you are place oriented, I suggest picking a different place for every story so that you won’t have trouble going from the mood of one to the mood of another.