Self-Editing Advice: How to Tackle Character Consistency

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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...

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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.

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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.)

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