The Importance of Consistency in a Novel
All writers make occasional mistakes. Misspelled words, forgotten punctuation, or misplaced commas are commonplace; that’s why we have editors and spend countless hours reviewing and modifying our work. These small errors are excusable, even if one or two happen to make it all the way through to print. Inconsistency, however, is inexcusable.
Your characters and settings must remain consistent throughout your novel unless you have provided a good reason for the changes. Characters in a book, just like real people, do not change without having three things in the mix: a reason for the change, the motivation and ability to make it happen, and the time to do it. Similarly, specific settings don’t change without some external force bringing them on.
Beginning with consistency in character development, I’ll address two specific areas of concern – personality and appearance. Imagine your disappointment as a reader if the protagonist drastically changes from one chapter to the next without explanation. In one scene, he is a 300 pound, white, middle-aged truck driver, and in the next, he is a tall, skinny, young black student at university. You would instantly be lost. The same is true with drastic changes in personality. You can’t have a character that you’ve painted as a pacifist go off on a killing spree without good reason; it just wouldn’t be in his nature.
This concept may seem like common sense and easy to follow but when you are writing a 100,000-word novel with a slew of characters, it can become very difficult very fast. The beautiful love interest who was described as having sky blue eyes in the first chapter may be described as the girl with emerald green eyes later in the book. Or, your hero might abstain from alcohol by choice in the beginning and then order a glass of wine at a restaurant in a later chapter. Those are simple mistakes, but they will stand out like sore thumbs. Additionally, mistakes in consistency are much more difficult for an editor to pick up on than grammatical errors and misspelled words.
Settings are a little easier to deal with but errors in consistency can be, and often are, made by the author. These errors are generated during descriptions. Say, for example, your protagonist lives in a house that was part of her inheritance; if later in the book you have her living in an apartment, that wouldn’t make sense. Similarly, if your book takes place in a tropical setting, it would really confuse the reader if you described the falling snow.
Again, the concept seems simple and easy enough to avoid, but it’s not, especially if you deal with multiple settings in different locations around the world. If the setting you’ve established is in Chicago during the wintertime and you’ve just described the day as being hot and muggy, then you’ve screwed up. If the scene is in a prairie and you’ve positioned a character hiding behind a tree in the woods, same thing. Often, we are so caught up in the development of the plot, we overlook the simple details of the surroundings.
So, my blog reading friends, what do we do about this dilemma? As always, I’ll offer some suggestions:
1. Use a software editing package that helps you track both characters and settings.
Scrivener is a great option. I’ll add an image below to illustrate and I will upload a video on how to effectively use the feature soon.
2. During your first edit, run a global search on each of your characters one at a time.
Unencumbered by the distraction of writing, you should be able to see the mistakes in descriptions or personalities.
3. Do your research!
If your primary setting is San Francisco, then conduct an exhaustive study on the city before writing. Likewise, if your protagonist is a brain surgeon, then study up on brain surgery.
4. Use visual aids as you write.
Want to describe a Gothic-Revival mansion? Do a search and save the image. Writing about a bodybuilder? Download a picture of one who best represents your vision. Refer back to these aids every time you write a new description.
5. Give proofreaders a signed copy of your book in exchange for looking for these specific types of errors.
Not only will they help you identify errors and inconsistencies, but it’s also tradition they post a review online.
I hope this helps you write your next bestseller! Thanks for reading and don’t forget to like, comment, and subscribe.