Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consistency in Characterization

One of my favorite stories as a child was about a large family living in an old Victorian mansion with pets, a dozen children, a cook, a maid, and a driver/caretaker. I've forgotten most of the book but remember it for its humor, including the moment when the father looks down at one of the boys rolling around on the rug and says, "Which one are you?"

I sometimes feel like that father. I'm deep into a scene with one character taking over and doing wonderful things to complicate the plot, and out of nowhere enters the protagonist's half-brother or long lost cousin or the neighbor who shows up at every barbecue without anything to contribute. I look at what I've typed and wonder, "Which one are you?"

In my current work-in-progress, Chief Joe Silva must deal with a death ruled a suicide in one of Mellingham's better neighborhoods (okay, I admit it, they're all better neighborhoods). The house sits near the inner harbor, which of course means lots of activity involving boats and sailing, and into this comes Joe's stepson, Philip. So far, so good. But I've forgotten what I knew about Philip. Who is he?

I keep three-by-five inch notecards on each character and certain aspects of Mellingham. All I have to do is pull Philip's card and note what I've written about him in previous books. Seems easy enough. He came into Joe's world in Family Album, as a nine-year-old boy, and stayed when Joe fell in love with the boy's mother, Gwen McDuffy. I read the notes I've made on Philip and once again see the young boy. But I know there's more, so I pull out the two previous books in which he has appeared and read every section, gleaning crucial details and nuances of expression that I should be mindful of as I write.

Philip is older, by two years, since his last foray into Joe's world of crime and misbehavior typical of a small town, but he's not an ordinary teenager. I have given him certain qualities and quirks, and I have to continue these. It wouldn't do to have him turn into an avid soccer player or a hard-core junkie when his character in A Murderous Innocence promised an entirely different future.

Any writer who has written at least two books in a series recognizes this problem. Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle was famous for changing a character's eye color halfway through a story, and lesser writers have changed a character's name and left the evidence on the occasional page (find/replace function notwithstanding). These superficial things bother me less than an unexpected change in character or unresolved plot threads.

My job as a writer is to tell a good story while being observant of the way people behave and expressing that honestly. I want readers to recognize in the teenage Philip the nine-year-old boy introduced in the third book in the Mellingham series.

I have learned that no matter how careful or detailed my notes are, nothing can convey the full sense of a character better than going back to the earlier passages and getting to know him or her all over again. I've been doing this with Philip, a teenage boy who discovers that he loves sailing, thanks to Joe deciding that anyone who lives on the water should know how to manage it. And fortunately for everyone, Philip manages very well.

Come About for Murder is Philip's book, despite all the other characters sailing through it. He's still a teenager, but a maturing one, and I love getting to know him again.


  1. Good advice, Susan. I've been thinking about this as I'm looking at a novel I wrote ten years ago, pondering whether to do a sequel or not. For one thing, my skills are a lot better than they were then, so I know the character will have changed, too.

    And it's good to know I'm in good company with Sir Arthur. I once had a blue and brown eyed doctor in a story. LOL. (Yes, I went back later and changed it.)

  2. I think of Conan Doyle often and very fondly. It comforts me to know a genius like that can get it mixed up sometimes. I hope you find the idea of the sequel interesting enough to tackle it. I love seeing how our fictional characters grow and change over time. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Very good info!
    Good luck and God's blessings.

  4. Interesting blog. Characters do change and mature, but they don't become someone else, so writers really must keep track. Enjoyed it.

  5. I do agree that it's very important to keep track of characters previously created for any series. Mystery readers in particular scrutinize every detail and tend to be more critical. So consistency is necessary.

  6. You're right about the scrutiny for readers of crime fiction. They keep me alert and on my toes. Thanks for commenting.