Character Design: Writing Consistent Characters

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A guy holding guns in an old building

One of my biggest pet-peeves in stories is the use of a character to drive the plot the wrong way. That’s just about the antithesis of character design. You’ll notice it from time to time, if you’re watching for it. It goes like this: an author writes a character one way for the majority of the plot, then, they just change that character. It throws the character under the bus.

Don’t do that.

If you do that, my interest in the character goes from one hundred to zero in about two seconds flat. Why? It completely breaks down the wall that exists between the reader and the storyteller. We get wrapped up in a good story. As soon as you make a character do something out of character, it tears down the wall and reveals you, waving around some paper puppets.

A Character and a Story

Let’s imagine a scenario. You’ve created Clive, this “man’s man” with a gun and a great car. Picture Jason Statham in Transporter. But he’s also a hero. He’s out to save his brother, a nerdly software entrepreneur from these cyberterrorists. Cool, right?

So imagine you write this story, and he’s just broken through this whole network of bad guys. Clive fights off no less than sixty guys, races up the stairs to find his brother tied up and tortured by the bad guy. So Clive pulls out his gun and shoots the guy and saves his brother.

Awesome, right? Except now he has to go back downstairs. So he’s escorting his wounded brother out to the car when he stubs his toe on the pavement and face-plants onto the ground. No big deal, accidents happen.

But imagine what it would be like if he got up and just started whining about it. Maybe he even cried a bit. His brother is all busted up, maybe even shot in the shoulder, and Clive is just going on and on about how bad his toe and cheek are bothering him.

It would be strange wouldn’t it? And maybe it feels justifiable as a writer, and maybe it even moves some idea of the plot along. But there’s almost always a better way to do it than to just flip a character around for the sake of the plot.

If there’s not a way to handle it differently, change your plot.

Your readers invest serious time in these characters. And while it’s okay to have a twist, or even a strange back story, avoid things you wouldn’t see in real people.

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