Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Characters: Consistency over Time

A combination of my writing group’s meeting last night and the book I’m currently reading got me started thinking about how writers convey consistency, or inconsistency, in their characters across the time period of their stories. I’m particularly irritated by the inconsistency in characters’ emotional states in the book I’m reading now, which title and author I’m not revealing to protect the guilty.

There are several places in this book where a character is in deep despair on one page and is laughing and joking on the next. And there is no indication of any serious passing of time. In another scene, a main character loses a wife, who he didn’t love but who he did respect. After his wife’s burial the guy goes from anger at himself for not being able to feel more emotions about her passing to a giddy, laugh filled, guiltless sexual act with a woman who he has always loved on the same damn page. Since this character seemed to be presented as a very duty-bound individual (that’s why the marriage to the woman he didn’t love), it just seemed so inconsistent for him to at least not experience some feelings of guilt. And the guy was presented as a hero but lost his credibility as such for me with this one scene.

The whole book has some serious problems, though, and after another irritating scene I’m just scanning the remainder of the book. In the scene in question, the villain has a huge army, far in excess of the army of the good guys. She also has a tremendously powerful bomb, which the hero manages to deactivate. The villain’s army immediately breaks and runs. Say what? That just makes no sense whatsoever. According to the build up of the book the villain’s army has conquered almost the entire land and has executed almost everyone who opposes them other than the small group they now face. They did this all without the bomb. So now that the bomb is gone they all turn to cowards? The villain is still alive, still has all her powers, and her army just melts away?

This relates to my writing group because last night we were talking about how it can be difficult to have a break between days of writing and then try to get back into a work in progress. I mentioned that, for me, the hardest part was not picking up the plot or action, but picking up the “mood” of the characters and the scenes. This is how the poor book I’m reading now reads, as if the author wrote one scene in one mood and another in a different mood and just didn’t bother to try and make the work read consistently.

The most frustrating part of this for me? The weak book I’m reading is part of a trilogy, from a genre not unlike those of my Taleran books, but this was published by a major press and has also been picked up by a book club. I hope you'll excuse my whine but I happen to think my books are a lot better.


Michelle's Spell said...

This makes total sense to me. I think character is the most important thing. And I agree that it's difficult to keep consistency in tone with long breaks. I once read that writing is like smoke -- you have to gather it every single day or it dies. I so admire your writing habits, Charles! You are a fantastic example for anyone who really wants to write about the need for consistent sustained effort and hard work.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm not even going to guess about what book you're speaking because I think I would lose interest fast. Books like that are all to prevalent these days, like something just dashed off for a quick buck. Go ahead and blow your own horn. If your description of the book is true, and I have no reason to doubt it isn't, I can attest that your books are better. They were fun to read and I can't wait for the next one to arrive.

laughingwolf said...

not whining, charles, statement of fact

i found tricks from reading all kinds of books on writing, from comics to screenplays, and neat ways to incorporate many of them

one is to compile separate 'bibles' on characters, with more information about each than can ever be used in a single book, but so handy to review when i lose my way as to who the character is and is not

Greg said...

I agree completely, Charles. sometimes that's one of the hardest things for me -- coming back to writing a story after a break and picking up the same moods of the characters. I've left quite a few stories unfinished because I couldn't get back into them with the same feeling. I guess I should have just finished them anyway, seeing as how that story's obviously selling.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles: I always try to write a whole scene in one sitting. If it's a long scene and I don't have enough time that day to complete it I put it off until I do.

I'm planning a future blog post - perhaps during my guest spot on Moonrat's if she'll let me - "The Top 10 Reasons Why Bad Books Are Published."

Heff said...

Never thought about that at all, and haven't noticed anything like that in any books I've read, although I could have easily overlooked some examples, when I PUT down the book, and got back to it later, lol.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, your books *are* a lot better.

Some days, the guilty prosper while men of virtue struggle...

Mary Witzl said...

Wow, Charles -- I'm certain your books are much better than this. In fact, so are my unpublished, crappy manuscripts, which have their own problems with inconsistencies, but no way are they getting published until those problems are gone. And this author you mention sounds like he or she beats my inconsistency problem all hollow. Don't knock this writer, though -- she or he has a purpose! Writers like this really make those of us who are aiming high feel great about ourselves.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles, this is something I've got to be careful about--it's a good lesson to be remembered. In my own WIP, I've got some emotional and physical ups and downs, but I think they're accounted for. As I recall, William James believed inconsistency was part of human nature, but wild inconsistencies of the type you mention might confound that early psychologist.

Lisa said...

When I read the first part of your post, my first thought was that maybe the character has a mood disorder of some sort! Sadly, I'm sure that was not the intent.

I don't think I have too much trouble with consistency with Tracy -- a bigger problem may be that she's pretty consistently unhappy. :(

Nobody likes a completely depressing story :)

Travis Cody said...

That's something with which I struggle all the time. I don't make consistent time to write, and I end up losing the feel of a particular scene and the mood of the characters. Or I'll come back to something with a total new direction, but the direction doesn't actually fit the characters who started off in the original scene.

But even so, that's the kind of stuff that should be fixed in edits. At least you'd think so anyway.

X. Dell said...

I really can't comment on the book, because I wouldn't know if I've read it or not.

Some (actually a lot) of mainstream fiction seems to me to be psychologically, um, strange. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of a cliche reaction to an event, when in real life people have diverse reactions to the same event. Other times, the character's actions or reactions might seem strange, especially if the writer doesn't give a reason at some point.

Otherwise, I've known people who could go from one emotional extreme to another literally in a manner of seconds. They have never been diagnosed with anything (although I wouldn't be surprised if a professional could find a definite pathology). I've also known people who are really disassociated from their emotions, especially ones they're not comfortable with. If this is a part of the character, and if the context of the novel makes this clear, I would tend to suspend judgment.

The logic problems are a different story. I couldn't imagine an invincible army running away because their new weapon broke down--unless they know something that I (and the protagonist) don't. Otherwise, it's too convenient, and doesn't ring true.

While I sympathize with the difficulty there is in picking up a thread of plotline from one sitting to the next, isn't that what re-drafting's for?

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, sometimes I even experience an alteration in mood with breaks between morning and evening. But thanks for your praise of my writing habits. I'm not as good as you suggest.

Randy Johnson, I definitely lost interest fast in that book and partially kept reading it to study how not to do certain things.

Laughingwolf, I have something I call the Taleran Encyclopedia, which lists characters and all kinds of other features of the series. Plants, animals, etc. It's fun as well as helpful.

Greg, I just don't know how such a weak trilogy got published by a major publisher. Right place at the right time, I guess. The publisher needed such and such a book and here was someone who delivered them, even if they weren't very good.

Josephine, I'll be very interested in that 10 reasons why bad books are published. It's a wild topic to me.

Heff, I used to never think about that sort of thing when I was just a reader, but now I find myself trying to explain or figure out why something is not working in a book I'm reading.

Steve Malley, that quote is one of those core truths of the human universe I'd say.

Mary Witzl, true. It was books like that that helped cement my desire to be a writer. I figured I could certainly do better.

Steve, real life is, of course, very inconsistent, though folks who don't have mental disorders are usually more consistent over short periods of time at least in their moods. It's definitely something to keep an eye out in our own work, I'd say.

Lisa, yes, I might have thought that if it wasn't "all" the characters. I think it would be hard to read about a character who was consistently depressed at every turn.

Travis, I always try to do that in edits, when I'm reading a longer work straight through rather than constructing it piecemeal. Then I'm in a similar mood across large sections of a book.

ivan said...


Seems to me writing is not what they tell you it is. You can't keep characters in jam jars.And it's very hard to maintain plot line and characer consistency.
...And if you write by the seat of your pants, you'll produce some mongrel thing between an editorial and a short story.
You could take the advice of John Braine (Room at the Top) and take your favourite novel, the one you just love, and follow the plot line and the characters in it.
Then you superimpose over the envelope and write as you want to.
Braine says,
"You are not stealing somebody else's work; you are only borrowing the envelope."

I've never tried this, but there is a subconscious process. One instructor told me to take out the middle chapters of my Black Icon, because it was too much like "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
The way novel writing has worked for me was to take the best and most dramatic of my published short work, use that material to open the book, and then let autobioraphy take its course by using the first or third person. The "I" or "He" will excuse any eccentricities or lapse in the character.
Come to think of it, plot is character. And you can lift a plot from any good work; there are only about sixteen of them anyway.
But I'm talking about straight fiction.
I know next to nothing about science fiction.
But the bit I've read seems to almost always follow a Vernean plot.
Ah, Captain Nemos, so many of us.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-Dell, I think part of the problem is that a story can't reflect real life exactly and needs to actually be more consistent than reality. People can alter emotionally pretty quickly but this has to be carefully accounted for in fiction in order to seem real. I definitely find it easier to be consistent in mood when I'm revising because I'm reading much larger chunks of a book at a time. Doing it in segments leads to a more difficult time with this, at least for me.

Ivan, at least in some cases with SF/fantasy we're dealing with projected or imagined autobiography. The Taleran books are all first person. There's a large element of wish fulfillment.

the walking man said...

Charles don't you think that the level of involvement between the writer and the character spells the level of possible inconsistencies?

I believe that if the writer is so focused on one character in any given scene that he has developed tunnel vision, forgetting all that led up to the scene and everything else that interacts in a particular scene.

Recognizing this is the hardest part of an edit eh? What bugs me about it though is how is the "fits and starts" of the scene's protagonist missed by them tasked to the editing in a major house?

*shrug* just two cents worth.


Bernita said...

Sounds like that book could have used a few bridge scenes, so the reader is not left with a WTF!

laughingwolf said...

excellent, charles... must provide a play area when the actual work becomes a tad tedious ;)

Erik Donald France said...

Maybe this character has multiple personalities ;->

In character/out of character is definitely impoprtant to keep in mind, and broken mostly through altered states/crises.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, that could be. Certainly it is difficult to hold all those disparate elements in your head when you're editing. Not unlikely that a writer will let one or more of those drop out of awareness in the process.

Bernita, yes, even when time has passed in the book it can be jarring to the reader to turn the page and find a character in a totally different mood, unless it's handled right.

Laughingwolf, lol. I often call that play area the "deck," as in the one on my house.

Erik it certainly seemed that way at times.

Miladysa said...

Another very interesting post Charles.

For someone who has an overactive imagination I also have quite a methodical and logical mind.

If something in a book sticks out to me as 'iffy' I can't shake it off and too many such occurances ruin the whole exercise for me.

"this was published by a major press and has also been picked up by a book club."

These days I tend to avoid the 'big ones' they are often all cover and no content.

I wish there was a writers class near me :-D

AvDB said...

The problem with character inconsistency is that it makes the reader stop to wonder. And anything that makes them pause and remember who they are and what they are doing--even for a moment--is bad. I have put down many books because, as they say, "The magic was gone."

Heather said...

see there is always something to glean from reading a book - even if it's a bad one. For me, it helps to keep my writing environment the same...the same room, the same music, the same flavor of tea....at least until I'm done writing a particular scene. When the mood of the scene changes then I can change my tunes. It helps to bring me back to my previous mindset.

laughingwolf said...

yeah, that'd be another ;) lol

writtenwyrdd said...

Very insightful, Charles. People can compartmentalize like that, but when you write about it, it takes a bit of effort ot explain how a person gets to these seemingly irreconcileable actions. And we probably would be better off not having our characters behaving inconsistently like that, even if we have good reasons! Usually.

SQT said...

I wonder if this comes from the author not "knowing" the character well enough. People can do inexplicable things but there is usually an underlying rational. I wonder if the author hasn't taken the time to flesh out the character in their own mind.

Also, the flip side of this IMO is a character that doesn't change or show growth. I'm reading a book now, that while very good, has some pretty one-dimensional characters that are painted with some pretty broad strokes. I'd like to see more subtlety and growth.

Lana Gramlich said...

Your problem is that you're not sufficiently "whorey." Damned ethics!
I still love you, though...

FANCY said...

I have not read it but I do belive it better...it have to be ;-)

Danette Haworth said...

I agree about breaks in the writing--it can be hard to sink back into that mood, the mood you left your characters in. As writers, we have to be actors, feeling our way back into the scene.

Shauna Roberts said...

I occasionally have the same problem as your un-derservedly-published-in-trilogy author, especially, ironically, when writing about events I've been through. When I write truthfully about what it feels like (emotionally or physically), readers who have not been through such events sometimes comment that it's not believable. I never know how to revise scenes like those, where the challenge is to make truth feel truthful.

Shauna Roberts said...

Oops—that should have been " undeservedly published-in-trilogy author"

J. L. Krueger said...


Excellent post as usual.

I can understand a character changing over the course of a book or books. If we are talking about such change occurring over time, that is realistic. In a single scene? Urgh!

Or if you have a character with rapid mood swings, it needs to be something the other characters notice. Certainly such behavior would drive "normal" people nutty. (I have one of those characters.)

I feel your pain on seeing rubbish published by "big houses". It's amazing what gets promoted sometimes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, I'm going tomorrow to a local library to meet with some guy who might be doing a class on writing. Not sure what it's all about but thought I'd check it out.

Avery, yes, exactly. Never give the reader an out basically.

H.E., I do the same thing, trying to keep stuff as similar as possible while I'm working through a particular story or section of a book so I can maintain consistency of tone.

Writtenwyrd, yes, it's odd but true, it seems to me, that fiction actually has to be more consistent than real life or people will consider it unreal and drop it.

SQT, I really got the feel that author was kind of "going through the motions." Maybe I'm completely wrong but it did feel phoned in.

Lana, oh well, it's not like it compares to having you as my sweety pie. Now there's some luck!

Fancy, thanks ;)

Danette, yes, kind of like I imagine method acting would be.

Shauna, It can definitely be difficult. I should post on how fiction needs to be "more real than real" in some ways. We can't just let our characters act totally as "flighty" perhaps as a person might act in real life or it feels awkward.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Here's what I think: If you take a break from your writing, you better damn well know your characters as if they're your best friends ... or enemies. Live with them everyday until the project is done.

Gina said...

Most of the books I have read, fall into the romance category. And all the Role Playing I have done involves the John Norman genre of Gor through AOL. Unfortunately, most of the characters can be flaky to the point that you get exasperated and want to throw the characters through a window for not feeling enough, or feeling too much. But, you endure the hell of finishing the book, or role playing the scene. Just to discover the outcome. Which usually is a disappointment anyway.
I started writing and never got past the first chapter. Due to my frustration that I can not get fingers to type at the speed I am thinking. Not to mention the reading and rereading every single word, to make sure it all smoothly goes into the next scene. Yeah..I am rambling lol. So long story short, I agree with you. Some people make their book characters too extreme, or just too dull.

Chris Eldin said...

I'm sorry I seem to come at the tail end of your posts.

That kind of writing would frustrate me too. And you're a good writer, so don't read the rubbish that will taint your own skills.

To me, characterization is the heart of a good story. If you have interesting, authentic characters, the reader will follow them on whatever plot you choose for them. (IMHO!!)

Great post!

Jeff Doten said...

Okay, I'm read China Mieville right now, who is anything but mediocre, but fantasy generally - cough - gag. Ack. So when you said, "published by a major press and has also been picked up by a book club" it doesn't surprise me at all. I tend to ignore the 'top picks' these days.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Was the author established already or was she a newbie? I always scratch my head about things like this. Like the big hoopla that there was over Prep and I couldn't even get past the first third of the book. But that is just subjective, I guess what you are talking about is just bad writing. That one so far I have only seen in later books of already published authors. I guess they just are so busy throwing the words down on paper to meet deadline that they really start to skimp on the writing.

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, agreed. They should definitely be rooming with you and not a study at a distance.

Gina, thanks for visiting. I left a longer comment about books on your blog.

ChrisEldin, yes, although there were quite a few problems with these books, the characters were the weakest link and lost me.

Venusian, I'm leaning that way myself. Most of my book buying budget these days is spent on small press publications.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, yes, it was an already established writer. Phoning it in, I think. But disappointing.