Last time when I blogged about consistency, the issue of characterization came up. Anthony Lee Collins brought up a point that another writer, Maggie, made about human nature: people can behave differently in different situations–which is totally true.
For me, this is part of what makes writing about various characters so challenging because not only do they have to feel “real” (which, in part, means sometimes behaving in ways others don’t readily expect them to), but they also need to stand out from one another and have their own unique personalities, worldviews and ways of doing things.
They’re consistent yet fluid.
Readers get pissed off when, after they feel they’ve gotten to know a character, that character suddenly does something completely out of character for no discernible reason. So in that way, consistency is really important. Characters must have understandable reasons for their actions that are consistent with who they are. In that respect, consistency is kind of a dictator.
Yet at the same time, you don’t exactly want them to be boringly predictable. They’ve got to breathe and be able to adapt to various circumstance in their surroundings, and adaptation implies a kind of change–or, perhaps, the revelation of some aspect of a character that s/he previously did not display before a certain point in the story. You can only reveal so much character in the first quarter-or-so of a book, which means readers can’t really “know” a character all at once with a few neatly placed facts and characterizations early on. As such, consistency doesn’t mean that characters have to remain the way readers understood them at the beginning of a story.
It seems these things are at odds with one another–that characters should be consistent but not necessarily unchanging or predictable. All right, so how do you go about implementing this, then?
I’m sure there are many ways, and I like to hear about them all. In any case, Anthony’s comment made me think about the way I learned (and now prefer) to develop characters.
It’s true: in my own life I’ve observed that different people can bring out, or even suppress, different aspects of my personality. Though, it’s not something I tend to plan or think about initially; it just kind of happens–after which I can observe and analyze the outcome and identify consistent attributes. The same is true for me when it comes to developing main and viewpoint characters.
I may have particular traits in mind for my characters initially, though as I’m writing a first draft, I try not to be heavy-handed in enforcing them and just kind of let them show me what they would do. This makes writing interactions between characters so much fun because I really never know what to expect or what will come to me, as I’m still “getting to know them”. Though, overtime, as I develop the story along the lines of the plot I’ve outlined (however sparse that may be), patterns do start to emerge and a kind of consistency forms.
It’s like I’ve these preconceived notions about them, but I’ve got to put them to the test by writing them in different scenarios with other characters to see if they hold up in the end. If not then I have to re-calibrate my understanding of them to include new traits and sometimes trash old (planned) ones if they aren’t compatible.
This can be a very fluid process in that there’s a lot of give and take between the fact that I, as the author, can “lay down the law” as to how a character should behave versus accepting surprise developments that come about through seeing what comes out of discovery writing. However, I feel like the context of the plot ultimately creates the circumstances in which characters reveal themselves so that the results of this process aren’t all that random, and eventually I can say I “know” a character enough to write them consistently.
In any case, consistency and fluidity are always playing off one another.
How do you go about developing characters?
I feel like there could be different ways of doing this, similar to plotting: there may be predominantly plotter-character developers, there may be pantsers, and then there’s the murky grey area in between. Do you stick to an outline or character bio you’ve drafted? If so, is it really detailed? Or do you mostly just like to wing things at first and kind of discover your characters as you go?