Characters: Consistent Yet Fluid

1 Feb

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.

Developing 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?

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22 Responses to “Characters: Consistent Yet Fluid”

  1. T. S. Bazelli February 1, 2012 at 11:35 AM #

    That’s a tough question. I usually have an idea of what each character has to learn by the end of the novel, and note down a few key scenes of emotional impact, for that character, that lead to a change in perspective. For the most part, the characters grow organically. I can’t really explain it. They tend to surprise me in what they say and do 😉 Sometimes consistency only comes in revisions.

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    • Tiyana February 1, 2012 at 7:00 PM #

      That actually sounds like a pretty organized way to go about it! Characters with purpose.

      “Sometimes consistency only comes in revisions.”

      *sighs* Yeah…

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  2. Anthony Lee Collins February 1, 2012 at 11:58 AM #

    Thanks for the nice words. Glad I was able to spark your thinking on this (and vice versa)

    I have a character in one novel who starts out sort of the Woody Allen type (small, smart, glib, nervous) and before the end I get him to a place where he kills two people. Nobody has ever complained that it wasn’t believable, because a lot of things happened to get him there (though I think for most people it was still a surprise).

    In my new story (which I’m just starting to post) I have a character who is acting out of character pretty much from the first paragraph. So, I have to inform the reader of both what she’s usually like (what she was like before. in other words) and why she’s acting the way she is now.

    You know, without repeatng “She was acting completely out of character!” all the time. 🙂

    I’m very much of a pantser, but I do know where this character is going, so I have to be sure she gets there.

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    • Tiyana February 1, 2012 at 9:27 PM #

      It was an interesting point you made–one I’d not really thought about before!

      And that’s good that you can write a depict a character’s transformation believably yet still manage to surprise your readers. Definitely something to aim for!

      Subtlety is another thing that can be tricky to work in–saying things without outright saying them. Though, when it’s done well, it really adds an extra level of sophistication to a story, methinks. That’s something I’d like to master over time.

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  3. deshipley February 1, 2012 at 12:28 PM #

    At the outset, I mostly think of my characters in terms of their relationships to each other. (A and B are best friends; C loves D, but D only has eyes for A; No one really like E, but she’s not going anywhere…)
    Additionally, I know the sorts of roles I want them to fill in the plot, and that will dictate to some degree what kind of people they have to be. (A needs to be a daredevil, B must be deeply compassionate, etc.)
    Beyond that, I’ll pretty much let the characters do what they want. I may have a few specific personality traits in mind, but whether the characters will actually end up displaying them or not is part of the writing adventure. Usually by the time I go back to edit the book, I’ll have learned everybody well enough to spot anomalous behavior, most often in the form of slightly-off dialogue. (C would never say that unless he was mocking J!).

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    • Tiyana February 1, 2012 at 9:36 PM #

      That’s interesting, and kind of goes back to what Maggie was saying about people behaving differently in different situations. No two people have the same exact relationship. Everyone has something unique they can offer to each other.

      I suppose looking at characters that way can help create focus, too, in a story. Things to play with and write towards. “When I put A and B together, I know I can expect fireworks/tension/hilarity…” etc. Or, “Since A knows nothing about x, and B knows a lot about x, then A can learn a lot from B.”

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  4. Stephen A. Watkins February 1, 2012 at 1:51 PM #

    Part of the challenge, I think, is that many (maybe most) readers expect characters to develop over the course of a book or story. If the character is the same at the end as at the beginning, that’s often not a satisfying narrative.

    As for how my characters develop? They usually start with some bare-bones idea: a fleeting glimpse or vague notion. In my current WIP the protagonist started out as nothing more than an image in my head of a young lady on a yellow hill with the wind blowing through her dark hair as she looked toward something ominous in the distance. Who she is, why she’s on the hill, and what she wants are questions I’ve had to answer. (I already knew what she was looking at, so that partly shaped some of those answers.) But I needed a reason for her to be there, and noodling on that for a while I eventually discovered some things about her past, which have helped me add flesh and bones to this skeleton of a character. Now she’s more than just the dark-haired girl on the hill.

    I’ve done all this without writing a word of the first draft yet. Most of this comes in little question-and-answer idea-storming sessions where I ask myself questions about the character or about the world, or about the plot, or whatever, and then start throwing around plausible answers until something sticks.

    Once I’ve got that framework in place, I move on to writing a more formal character bio, which further helps me figure out who the character is.

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    • Tiyana February 1, 2012 at 10:08 PM #

      That’s a neat image to have–just enough intrigue to give you something to work with. (The way you described it kinda reminded me some of the poster for Brave, minus the red hair and bow and arrow, heh. Though, yours sounds more foreboding and mysterious!)

      For the longest time I was trying to write about a character who ended up not being the main protagonist for my WIP now–and to be honest I found him to be very uninspiring and bland, which was only part of the reason why he didn’t work out as the POV character. Though, when I decided to switch the perspective to another character who I hadn’t developed enough, it completely changed the way I looked at the initial concept I’d been playing with (people with elemental powers) and how I needed to approach it. The start for this new POV character came from an image I had of her taking a bath, talking to herself about far-out, cosmic things… Eventually it becomes clear there’s something’s abnormal about her, especially when she starts questioning whether or not she should be taking her “meds”. Then, like you said, this just led to more questions like, “What does she need medication for?”

      …And then the rest just took off from there!

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  5. Mark Andrew Edwards February 1, 2012 at 3:23 PM #

    I think actions for characters should change based on their actions or emotions from earlier in story. If you’re in your character’s head, you know what their reaction is and why.

    Let me give an example: say you have a teenaged boy character who is dealing with a bully. The first time he gets bullied, he backs down and gets hurt or humiliated. That event, his failure, preys on his mind. So the next time he encounters the bully, he punches him. Maybe he wins, maybe he loses, but the outcome to the same situation is different because of the reaction to the action (or lack of action) he’d taken before.

    For me, I usually go into a novel knowing who the character is or who I want them to be at the end of the story. Then I work forward or back to think about what kind of events would bring about the change I want the character to experience. (In some cases, the character doesn’t change significantly, but that’s rare. Only when I’m trying to create an ‘iconic’ character.)

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    • Tiyana February 1, 2012 at 10:45 PM #

      “I think actions for characters should change based on their actions or emotions from earlier in story.”

      That’s really the key, there, to showing believable character growth: we have to understand where they came from for their change or transformation to make any sense. Your example demonstrates this nicely.

      Also, when you say “iconic” character, do you mean kind of like a superhero, in a sense?

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      • Mark Andrew Edwards February 2, 2012 at 11:15 AM #

        Sort of. 🙂 I’m thinking more along the lines of Conan, Sherlock Holmes or John Shaft. Those characters don’t change, the fun of reading them is watching these unchanging characters moving in a new setting or interacting with new characters/challenges. Those kind of characters need to be more consistent than fluid.

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    • Anthony Lee Collins February 2, 2012 at 5:51 AM #

      Good point about “iconic” characters. I assume you mean like the detective in a series of mystery novels. Those characters don’t usually change very much, and the readers expect that consistency.

      Within that, especially in a long series, you can introduce some changes, but that’s really the author’s choice.

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  6. Ayslyn'sCorner February 5, 2012 at 8:16 PM #

    I like to put different characters in the same situation. They react differently, and change the scene to suit themselves, but in this way I can compare and contrast them. Sometimes I use a scene from a current work, and others I’ll use something generic like… being locked in a dungeon with a chair, rusty bars on the window and shoelaces.

    Insightful post; I enjoyed reading. 🙂

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    • Tiyana February 5, 2012 at 10:21 PM #

      Thanks, Ayslyn!

      That sounds like a good setup to study and way to get to know your characters. Kind of like an experiment, of sorts.

      Scary, I can think of one character of mine who’d actually feel right at home in the dungeon you described, heh. Others…not so much.

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  7. Jay Noel February 6, 2012 at 1:29 PM #

    My main characters are ALWAYS dynamic. They are changed by the end of the story. Although their main attributes usually stay intact, albeit a little different as well.

    For example, my main character in my current WIP is arrogant. He’s humbled by the end, but he’s still pretty sure of himself. But he is changed dramatically when he learns he’s been lied to, and his faith in shattered.

    That’s why we read fiction – not just for the plot, but how the events in the story affect the characters.

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    • Tiyana February 7, 2012 at 12:35 PM #

      I think, like you, that I generally prefer to read about characters who go through some kind of change of an emotional or ideological nature. Though, a more stoic main character like one from a mystery story in the way that Anthony described has its own appeal, as well. In the latter case, I guess their dynamism(?) comes more from seeing them “connecting the dots” and “solving the mystery”, so it isn’t so much about change as it is progress.

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      • Anthony Lee Collins February 7, 2012 at 7:07 PM #

        As I’ve talked about on my blog, I don’t think the idea of a single protagonist who both drives the action and is changed by it doesn’t apply to mysteries, or at least not to all of them. The detective is initially reactive, and then proactive, but usually not much changed. However, people are certainly changed in a mystery (it’s a pretty big change for an ordinary person to become a murderer, and most people are changed when someone they’re close to is killed). So, I think all of the same things are happening, just to different people.

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  8. J. P. Cabit February 9, 2012 at 11:01 AM #

    I’m fond of character bios. I’ve tried interviews but they don’t work too well for me. Then, I do like sketching characters. Helps me get a visual grip on them.

    Fluid yet consistent is a GREAT way of describing characters!

    Like

    • Tiyana February 10, 2012 at 10:23 AM #

      I would sketch if I could! Next best thing is inspiration photos of actual people, I guess. 😀

      Like

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