If readers are going to understand character development, know when someone is behaving in an atypical manner, or form attachments to a character, consistent characterization is necessary.
Consistent characterization means that the writer has a clear understanding of their characters personalities and behavior, and remains stable in that characterization from chapter to chapter, episode to episode, book to book.
There is a difference between a character showing growth or having their personality revealed over time is that the change in audience perception or character behavior is believable and natural. Even characters that are living an act or hiding parts of themselves should make sense after their real personality is revealed, though it might take a second read.
When characters seem to wobble around erratically, that’s inconsistent characterization. Actions that feel out of character and aren’t recognized as out of character in the narrative create murky characters which leave the audience confused, frustrated, or disinterested.
This can be particularly difficult for serialized works with multiple writers. Tools like character bibles, good communication between writers, and someone appointed to strongly enforce of canon can combat some of the complications. However, even lone writers sometimes struggle to keep everyone in character and the details about them correct.
Why? Straight up, keeping track of characters is hard. There are lots of fiddly things to keep sorted, and it’s much easier to think ‘what would I say in this situation’ or ‘how do people normally react’, which makes for some bland or off-model character actions.
Also, people are sometimes made to act out of character in stories because the writer thinks that this will intensify drama. However, it ends up forced and unnatural, and can be really frustrating from a reader’s perspective. Opportunities for genuine and dramatic situations stem from characters reacting as themselves. Even in a plot-driven story with simplistic or static characters, the story will make more sense and be more engaging if characterization is clear and well-maintained.
Characters can be a mystery to readers or to other characters, but should never be a mystery to the writer. Don’t noodle around- keep track of each person and their personality, backstory, and behavior!
A few ways to keep track of characters:
- Character bible
- Notes on what has been revealed to a reader thus far vs. what will be revealed later
- Lists of mannerisms and habits
- A few friendly readers to tell you if something feels off
Followers: What do you do to keep your characters consistent?
I'm currently working on a fantasy piece, but I've always pictured my main character to be an Indian woman. Is there a way to make this clear without using the word "Indian" (as it takes place in a separate world so this would not make sense). Should I jay describe her with characteristically Indian features and hope my vision comes across?
If you’re totally opposed to saying she is Indian, then yes, you should describe her how you picture her. Don’t just overly throw in stereotypical features, though—people have their own distinguished looks. You may also want to consider how her culture is different from the other characters’. Maybe there’s a background in your world that’s similar to that of an Indian one. Do some research! Even including subtle hints can help, so drop in descriptions of things like her clothing and types of foods she eats. Voice is always important, too. Dialect or even the structure of her sentences could reflect her lifestyle. Remember, fantasy always has to have some realism. Good luck!