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Self-Editing Advice: How to Tackle Character Consistency

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, Revision, What's New.

Keeping your character(’s) traits consistent is very a important step in polishing your manuscript, especially if it’s written from multiple points of view (POVs). For example, if you have one character who constantly swears, and has a tendency to lose his/her temper at the drop of a hat, you do not want your other characters behaving in the same way. If this happens, your characters will blend together, and your readers will have trouble being able to tell them apart. You don’t want your readers having to back track to be sure they have understood who is speaking/narrating. They should just know. And readers know by identifying your characters from the way they speak, move, and behave. For instance, if you are familiar with The Lord of the Rings, you definitely know when Sam’s talking, and you never confuse him with Pippin or Merry even though they’re all Hobbits…

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her latest guide to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).

 

 

Screen shot 2014-07-14 at 1.02.40 AM       Screen shot 2014-07-14 at 1.01.46 AM

Jessica Bell, a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author,
poet and singer/songwriter/ guitarist, is the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves
Literary Journal and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop
on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English
Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education,
HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.
Connect with her on Twitter.

 

 

You might think you have sorted this out during revisions, but it’s possible you have missed a few nitpicky things. If you want to master the voices of your different characters, you cannot rely on revising your work from beginning to end (or end to beginning as some do). You need to isolate each POV and work on them separately.

Let me tell you a true story to prove how important this step is even when you think you have your characters down pat. While I was giving my latest multi-POV manuscript a final editing pass, I discovered that each and every one of my characters’ answers began with “Um … .” Yikes! Not good. So I chose one character to assign the “Um … ” to and deleted it from the rest. How had I not noticed this before? Because I was lazy to take this step. (And, embarrassingly, I wasn’t the one who noticed: a beta reader did.)

So, what I suggest you do is print out your manuscript, isolate all the POVs into different piles (make sure your pages are numbered!), and skim through them one at a time. While you are doing this, make a list of their prominent character-defining traits and behaviors, and any phrases they use regularly.

For example, let’s say your story is told from the perspective of three different characters: Bob, Jane, and Doug. And after skimming their pages, you are left with the following list (this is very simple and refined for the sake of demonstrating my point):

Bob:

  • Uses a lot of slang and doesn’t pronounce the -g on words that end in -ing
  • Often says, “Dude!”
  • Elbows the person next to him when he thinks he has said something funny

Jane:

  • Snorts when she laughs
  • Always says “No way!” to express surprise
  • Chain smokes

Doug:

  • Never smiles
  • Speaks articulately and intelligently
  • Often bites his nails

Okay. Now that you have your list, thoroughly read through each POV separately, to make sure these character traits are consistent from beginning to end. Similarly, eliminate any behaviours that belong to the other characters. I can’t stress how frustrating it is reading a multi-POV manuscript where every single character has the same repetitive traits.

On the other hand, please don’t over-do it with the repetitive traits. Just because Doug bites his nails, it doesn’t mean he has to bite his nails on every single page. Use your better judgment.

Here’s a quick checklist for your convenience:
1. Print out your manuscript (with page numbers).
2. Isolate all the different POVs.
3. Skim through them one at a time and make a list of repetitive character-defining traits.
4. Thoroughly read through each POV to check for trait consistency.
5. Eliminate any traits that belong to other characters.
6. Ensure you aren’t overusing the traits.

(Want more advice on how to self-edit your manuscript? Then you might be interested in Jessica’s new release, Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.)

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her latest guide to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Please note that comments may take a little while to appear; this is normal).

 

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35 Responses to Self-Editing Advice: How to Tackle Character Consistency

  1. DanielJayBerg says:

    Thanks for sharing! This is perfectly timed advice, as I’m diving into a multiple-POV story for the first time. I appreciate the practical suggestions.

    A question I have is how to make each character unique but not make them annoying or one-dimensional.

    Good luck in your future writing!

  2. Tennisgirl92 says:

    I totally want this book!!

  3. Adan Ramie says:

    Great post!

    I definitely have some work to do in this area. I have actually had to scrap a partial manuscript (and the idea itself, I was so frustrated) because I had two characters who, essentially, had almost identical personalities, once I isolated the little character traits that supposedly made them unique.

    I’ve also had trouble stopping myself from using “stock” characters across different stories and genres; you can only have so many kindly, old, Southern nurses in sensible shoes before you start to feel like you’re in the Twilight Zone.

  4. puppeterry says:

    I’m told I have a strong writing-voice that usually sounds like me. it’s a good reminder that your characters need individuality. They shouldn’t be cookie-cutter clones.

  5. Lexi Levina says:

    I write romance and so I usually play around two POVs– that of the heroine and the hero. Since they are of opposite sex, they are expected to act and react differently. But that’s only easier in my imagination but hard to put on paper when I’m already writing the scenes. Moreso, since I’m writing romance, I want my hero and heroine to stand out and not be confused with other supporting characters. So thanks for that very sound advice: CONSISTENCY.

  6. ARCTG says:

    I just had the last chapter critiqued, and am beginning the final (5th) revision/edit of my book. This was a good instruction on another item to be aware of, which I didn’t have on my list before. Thank you.

  7. Judi says:

    Thank you for this. Maybe this is why some of my critique group are suddenly having a problem identifying which of my two main male characters is which. Hopefully I can fix it, since I am rewriting and have only reached chapter 2 of the rewrite.

    Wouldn’t this also apply to my main supporting characters?

  8. Lady Grayish says:

    This advice came at just the right time. I’m working on editing a book and all the characters are blurring together a little too much.

  9. Silverlore says:

    I’ll be keeping track of this advice. Since I’m still in the early stages of the first draft, I’m not quite ready for this, but it is still useful to keep in mind as I work. Thank you!

  10. DebbieL says:

    This is great advice. Thank you Jessica!

  11. BBGrammy says:

    My worry may be at the other end of the character spectrum. I worry that my characters are not distinct enough from each other.

    • Jessica Bell says:

      Well, if that’s the case, you can follow the same advice above by isolated all your POVs and going through them one at time. Then you an think about how to make them each unique and implement those changes. But make sure you keep a list of what you’re doing so you don’t double up. Good luck!

  12. Debbie says:

    Redundancy in characteristics has always baffled me. I’m so thankful for your advice and guidance in this area. Nail biting or gum chewing or annoying laughter — nobody wants to read about it constantly. Thanks for putting it all in check!

  13. funsizesnack says:

    Thank you, Jessica. This advice came at just the right time for me. It all seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how I can flake out on obvious things when I get too immersed in my draft. Your article was well-written reminder for me to stop, isolate each main character and study what makes her/him the person s/he is. Again … wonderful, easy-to-read, and truly helpful article!

  14. bewarne says:

    I have been trying to figure out all the different things to edit for and this wasn’t on my list until I read this column.

  15. crcartaginese says:

    Thanks for the great advice, Jessica! My novel-in-progress has two narrators, and though it’s told from the third person (limited) POV, it’s still important for the reader to be able to tell them apart, as they are two separate and distinct characters. When the time comes, I will definitely apply your technique to my own work!

  16. bonniesearle says:

    Jessica, thank you for sharing this. I’m working on my first novel (not counting a NANOWRIMO mess that became populated with over 80 characters that included an amateur sleuth who morphed into a completely different person by the end of the book), and I am so grateful for practical advice. Your suggestions are very helpful. I will make that list right away. Again, thanks!

  17. mbelec says:

    Great article! I plan to incorporate your advice into my WIP. I’d thought of having one character drop the “g” but hadn’t consider mannerisms. Thanks for the ideas to enhance each of my character’s individuality.

  18. DM Watson says:

    This is timely advice for me. I was just talking with an author-friend about making each of her characters distinct. I’ll be sharing this. Thank you.

  19. DJRaf says:

    You know, I never had that issue…how characters sound similar. But as I work on two books, I fear (perhaps unfounded) that such might be the case. I have a lot of serious characters, but no silly/boring/unique ones that really stand out. This however, I will use to ensure that such doesn’t happen. Thank you JB!

  20. Dennis says:

    Thank you Jessica. I am writing my first novel that has four different POV’s. Three are teenagers so I like the idea of isolating each to check consistency and overlap. Your book sounds like a great book to have.

  21. ravensview says:

    Good advice. I was told that in my first novel many of the characters sounded the same.
    Sorting by POV is a good start, but I think a character’s traits will also be shown from another character’s POV, or in any dialogue they are in.

  22. Martin Armenta says:

    Thank you Jess for this sound advice. I recognize your suggestions put to play in a currently popular American work of fiction that I have been reading. The writer writes well, but story-line is weak and the main characters are truly unlikeable. Nevertheless, she has (exhaustingly) employed the tactics you have outlined above. Indeed, by technique alone, she has managed to put out a trilogy and garner a movie contract.

  23. Jessica Bell says:

    Thanks so much for having me today, Chuck!

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