Sunday, August 11, 2013

Keeping Characters Straight

I've encountered a problem as a writer, and I'll bet I'm not alone.  I'll be in the groove, everything I'm churning out going swimmingly, and I'll need someone in the story to do something when I suddenly forget the character's name.  I'll know that someone should be acting, and it's old what's-his-face, but since he or she hasn't made an appearance in 20 pages, I know have to go back through my work and rediscover them.

What was the character's name?  Were they white, black, or Asian?  Are they frumpy, or were they straight-laced?  More importantly, is this keeping consistent with their character?

This isn't an issue with the one or two main characters.  As I've brainstormed a story, I got to know those folks pretty intimately.  No, the problem usually happens with a minor character.  That person may or may not be vital to the story, but they aren't as big as the main guy, so I don't know them as well.  However, as much as I may not remember them in the heat of the moment, you can bet my readers will.

There is little more frustrating to me than when I'm editing a story and I find an error in consistency like spelling a character's name differently or finding out that I accidentally introduced a new character when I didn't need to(like maybe I needed an assistant sniper in the story and forgot, as a throwaway, that I'd already given one to the main character).  I then have to consider the impact on the story - how many ripples did it cause?  Can I just go back and change names and be done with it?  Or did that new character create a plot inconsistency that changes the whole story?

Some writers avoid this by meticulously mapping out every part of their tale, but most of us outline some and then free-write some.  It's in the editing process that we'll discover it.  I've started making a character page when I'm writing so I can reference it when necessary, but that takes I'd rather be spending writing.  Yes, that sounds lazy, but that's also the truth to how we are sometimes.  I'd love to pretend I have this great work ethic that always keeps me sharp, but everyone slips, and I'm no different.

The best way to avoid this is to know your story all the way.  Understand the interactions and introductions within it, no matter how subtle.  However, even the most intimately familiar relationships sometimes have lapses, so it's how you deal with these lapses that is important.  Or maybe I'm just getting old and my memory is fading.

On the other hand, I could just be getting old and my memory could be fading.

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