Friday, April 15, 2011

A Foolish Consistency

 Today we welcome Karen Brees to The Blood Red Pencil for the first of several guest posts she will share with us. Thank you, Karen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (no slouch himself when it came to writing) said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”

Maybe so, but if you’re a writer, you’d darn well better be consistent. If your heroine had short brown hair on page 25, she’d better not have long, blonde locks on page 27, unless she donned a wig on page 26.

Is your villain right-handed in the beginning and left-handed later on? Hmmm. Somewhere you had a brilliant idea that the mystery had to have been committed by a southpaw, so you changed Rudolfo’s handedness.

Catching these goofs is important. The problem is you see what you meant to say. What you wrote, however, may be different and that can create credibility problems for your plot, your characters, and your career in writing.

Consistent Expectations

Your characters’ actions need to be consistent with their personalities and their roles in the novel. Real life may be full of coincidences and at times be too bizarre to seem real, and that’s fine. Life is strange. Fiction, however, needs to be believable. The story line needs to make sense. You’re allowed one coincidence. Maybe. And it had better work.

Getting Out of Trouble

You’ve written yourself into a corner. There’s no way out.
The entire enemy army has the house surrounded.
Or the hero is trapped in the box canyon.
Or the heroine has ingested the deadly poison for which there is no antidote.

What to do?

And then I woke up. It had all been a dream.

This is a cheap shot. It’s the chicken way out and you’re goose is cooked, to mix some aphorisms. It’s inconsistent with what you’ve written before. It tells your readers you’re a lousy writer. You owe your readers more.

Each action creates a reaction. This reaction needs to follow logically from the action. For example, if your character runs a red light, there are many possible, logical, consistent reactions.

He gets a ticket.
He causes an accident.
He gets his wife to the hospital in time to deliver the baby.
He eludes the killers who are stuck two cars behind him.

And so forth.

If the reaction is illogical and inconsistent, your readers are left scratching their heads and may quite possibly shelve your book, never to return to it or anything else you’ve written.

For example,

Elizabeth preened before the mirror. She blotted her lipstick with the hem of her robe before joining the other postulants at Mass.

Now, if Elizabeth is hiding out at the convent (think Sister Act), this is well and good. However, if she’s more like Mother Theresa and is devoting her life to the Church, this isn’t going to work.

Know your characters. Keep them true to themselves and they’ll never let you down.


Writing as Karen K. Brees, Ph.D. - The Complete Idiot's Guide to Preserving Food (Alpha Books 2009)
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  1. Thanks for being out guest today, Karen. Good information in your post.

  2. Actually, I like the visual of Elizabeth blotting her lipstick on her robe. Of course, I'm a humor writer...

  3. Isn't it interesting that our inconsistent lives cry out for consistency? Perhaps that's the reason we see these little goofs in the books we read.

    As an editor, I often find errors in consistency that the writer has overlooked. Excellent post, Karen! Thank you for sharing this reminder with us today.

  4. One of the reasons I do a short (just a few sentences) synopsis of each chapter is so I can catch mistakes I made when I changed something in Chapter 22 that affected something in Chapter 4. You're right, if the writer doesn't catch the mistakes, the reader will.

  5. Great fun to be here. Thanks for having me, Maryann.

    Gayle, I see a new novel perking in your writerly brain.

    Linda and Helen, thanks for the tips.

  6. Thanks for stopping in, Karen. I read an interesting blog today that suggested building characters based on the Meyers-Brigg personality type indicator. I never would have thought of building a character that way! Or analyzing existing characters to clarify what they are. It sounded like a fun approach.

  7. Oh Karen, you just want to take the fun out of writing! :-)

    It's a good idea to write up some character bios to make consistency a little bit easier.

  8. Great points, Karen. Being consistent is one reason I keep a cheat sheet for my manuscript to keep track of details I might forget.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Great point! Consistency is incredibly important.

    It's the reason why I will read my own book before I start the sequel. Because I HATE when I can see the writer never bothered to check for consistency. I once read a series where the supporting character's NAME changed. Seriously.

  10. Wow. Really good tips, thank you! And, lovely to meet you via bloggerland. ;-)

  11. This is also a great reason for putting your piece in front of fresh eyes. After a few drafts, all of your choices live on in your head, and you can't remember which ones are still on the page. An editor can be of particular help--not everyone has a head for tracking that kind of detail.

  12. Dani, the M/B is a great idea. I've also had some fun with the Enneagram's 9 personality types.

  13. Bob and Morgan, I like character bios. Seen some samples that go into such detail they're longer than the novel, or so it seems. It's important to have your characters firmly planted in mind. Their personalities develop as I go along.

  14. Misha and Kathryn, fresh eyes are essential, whether they're your own (after your novel has quietly marinated in a drawer for a few months) or someone else's (editor, critiquing buddy). Good point.

  15. Talei, nice to meet you as well!

  16. This is a great post. It's so important to keep your plot and characters consistent. I like to use index cards for this - that way I can have them right in front of me when I'm working.

  17. girlseeksplace - anything that keeps you on track is good. Index cards have been around a long, long time just for that reason.

  18. I read a book once where the MCs eyes kept changing colour. It pulled me right out of the story.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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