I am delighted to welcome Alexia Casale to Bookbabblers today, as part of The Bone Dragon blog tour. I loved The Bone Dragon, it is a magical and hypnotic read. My review will be up later today. Here is the guest post from Alexia…
Should characters always be consistent?
One of the basic tenets of characterisation is that characters should be consistent. This derives from a rather puzzling assumption that people are broadly consistent. But are they? People have good days and bad days. Days when they feel generally confident or anxious. Days when someone has said something lovely and days when someone’s upset them. All those things will have an impact on how they behave, as will their context: I’m very out-going in small groups, but tend to be shy by nature at parties.
If people aren’t consistent across different times, places and contexts, does making characters consistent really make them more believable? The simple answer is that there’s a delicate balance to be struck.
Even over a whole series of books, characters are lucky if they get a thousand pages of life: a whole lot less than a real person, even a child, when you think about all the things we see, hear and feel over the course of a single hour. So characters are, by nature, less complex than real people. This is one of the things that makes it easier to get to know them. However, because characters are so much simpler and we have less information about them, it’s harder to put apparent inconsistencies into perspective in order to understand why, for example, extroverted Lexi, who’d push into a one-sided fight between strangers in the street, might have to do her poetry reading with her eyes shut.
If you can make readers understand why apparent inconsistencies aren’t really inconsistent at all, suddenly you’ll have a character with real depth: a character who isn’t just an extrovert, but someone who, like a real person, will have times and places and situations in which they’re undone by shyness. If you can make this believable to the reader, your characters will feel like real people. The tricky bit is showing that what seems like inconsistent behaviour is actually entirely consistent given the time, place or context; in other words, the character’s behaviour needs to be ‘internally consistent’ given his/her personality, history and the situation involved.
Inconsistency is especially important when it comes to YA fiction. Being a teenager is all about that process of transition where you’re not-quite-an-adult and not-quite-a-child. As a result, teens are often very grown up in one way and very immature in another. It’s true of adults too, but the YA years are the worst. Given that this is a big part of what being a teenager is, it’s important for at least some YA literature to try to capture it.
Many of the characters in The Bone Dragon are inconsistent, but none more so than the protagonist, Evie. In fact, this is probably the most important aspect of her character: For Evie, the normal teenage issues of inconsistent maturity are complicated by her traumatic past. As a result, one minute she’s more grown up than a lot of the adult characters then, the next, it becomes clear that she’s far more childish than her peers. Trauma often stunts development and, for me as a writer, one of the most interesting things about Evie is that she’s wise and backwards by turns. Hopefully, this comes across in the telling not only as believable but psychologically inevitable. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the book, though I can see why it might be challenging at the same time.
If you’re a writer struggling with the issue, my advice is to be wary while recognising that inconsistency can be a powerful tool for creating believable characters. However, if you need a character to do something that’s seems out of character because that’s what the plot dictates, then you have a problem. This type of inconsistency is going to make your character less rather than more believable because the impetus for the behaviour is external to the character and the situation: it’s all about your intentions as a writer. It’s important to be honest with yourself about why your character is being inconsistent: is it coming from the character or from you, the writer?
Characters, like real people, are internally consistent even when their behaviour seems incomprehensible. If your YA character is going to be mature one moment, then childish the next, make sure you know what aspect of his/her personality, history or context is driving the switch between grown up to infantile: there should always be a reason and the reader should have enough information to understand it. But don’t shy away from giving readers a challenge. That’s part of the joy of reading.
You can find out more about Alexiaand The Bone Dragon on her website: http://www.thebonedragon.com/