This article by Joanne Grant is from the September 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership

Excellent characterization is the backbone to every good story. So much goes into creating believable, three-dimensional strong characters—solid back stories, clear motivations, compelling conflicts and vivid physical descriptions—but small details can be the undoing of all that good work. A misplaced ‘out of character’ moment or action can take the reader out the story, undermine the consistency of the character, and shake the foundations of believability.

To ensure that your characters are as real and unique to the reader as they are to you, in this article I’ll highlight three key areas of mindfulness when writing and self-editing your work.

Out of character behavior

This seems like an obvious one, but I’m not talking about the fun out of character behaviors that demonstrate there’s been a key shift in character development. As long as the behavior is well-motivated, the reader will love these moments as they are often the key turning points for the story—you’ve been building to them, the reader understands them and revels in the character’s unusual behavior.

Instead, it’s the small, inconsistent details that can stand out to the reader and slowly chip away at their confidence in the character, and in turn the story. Here are some examples:

  • She is an edgy, top of her game businesswoman—but she leaves a meeting because she is about to cry
  • He only drinks black coffee for breakfast—but complains later he is hungry because he skipped breakfast
  • She’s never even been kissed—but is suddenly a sex kitten in the bedroom displaying a surprisingly encyclopedic knowledge of the Karma Sutra!

In each of these examples, the intention of this behavior may be to further the plot. If this is the case—as always—motivation is key! But if you can’t realistically motivate them to behave in this way, or there was no specific intent behind the behavior—the inconsistency should be eliminated.

Let’s take each example in turn:

  • You want to demonstrate that your steely businesswoman is so emotionally affected by this meeting she cries, so show why she has been moved to this extreme! But if her tears are not integral to the plot—the intention is just to show that the meeting has got to her—think about how she would react that is more in keeping with her character.
  • For our coffee drinking hero—this could just be a slip of continuity—if he never has breakfast, he can never miss it, so clear up this inconsistency. Believe me, readers do notice these things!
  • As for our sex kitten—on reflection you may realize you’ve written a sexually confident heroine because this is what comes naturally to you. Either give a realistic reason how she can be so knowledgeable (has she literally studied the Karma Sutra?!) or, re-write the scene with your inexperienced heroine in mind. But if her being a virgin isn’t integral to the plot, you may want to question whether the virgin heroine trope is right for you at all.

Out of character language

It takes time to develop and find your own author voice; however, once you do, it becomes your anchor for your readers who will want return to you time and time again. But when it comes to creating character voice—how can you make sure that their voice and the language they use is distinct from your voice and that of other characters? After all, this character came from you and whether you intend it or not and they may just accidentally share some of your verbal quirks.

Here are some examples where character language can trip you up:

  • Colloquial phrases: they hold meaning to you—based on your background and experiences—but probably have no place in your characters’ vocabulary based on their background.
  • Age appropriate phrases: using dated/old-fashioned phrases or too contemporary phrases for your character’s age can really jar and make readers’ question the authenticity of the character.
  • Culturally dissonant words/phrases: some phrases just do not translate across cultures even across shared languages, such as English. For example, Americanisms slipping into a British character’s vernacular and vice verso.

Just like a child learns from parents, and how close friends can pick-up certain phrases from each other and adopt them as their own—so can your characters—either from yourself or from other characters! This can happen in both thought and dialogue.

Being aware of this should help you spot any of these moments, and a helpful tip is to read your work out loud—or get someone else to read it to you—and carefully visualize your character as you do so. Can you picture your cultured, buttoned-up politician swearing like a trooper and complaining about the latest football scores, or a billionaire businessman exclaiming "oh, my goodness?"

Out of character physical movements

Human communication is heavily reliant on non-verbal cues.  Even though studies cannot agree on what percentage is verbal vs non-verbal, the consensus is that most of communication is non-verbal. If you know your characters inside out, you should be able to imagine how they move their body not just to get around, but to also communicate.

How do they walk, how much do they use their hands to express themselves and what about their facial expressions? Now check in on how you have described your characters physically moving about – does it match with their traits, such as age, physical ability, but also their personality? How does it match-up with their communication style?

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Your hero is in his thirties, a successful man who is fit and strong—do you think he would ever "wander" or "amble" into a room—or is he more likely to stride purposefully?
  • Your heroine is described as warm, friendly and open—but we rarely see her smile, or make physical contact with others, such as a hand on an arm, or a sympathetic look.
  • Your character is very prim and proper—would they use their hands to enthusiastically "hand talk" when they speak?

When it comes to physical movements, inconsistent or even lack of description, can undermine a character. Whereas, a little bit of detail here, can go a long way to adding a deeper dimension to your character and really bringing them off the page for your reader.

In conclusion, even when you think you’ve got the big stuff nailed down for your characters the details and trip you up. Here some final thoughts on why is this and what can you do about it:

  • You don’t know your character as well as you thought—you need to spend some more time getting to know them!
  • You are writing against type and/or experience—you may need to consider whether this character is someone you can do justice to. More research into your character type is required to make sure they sound, act and behave authentically. Watch videos, documentaries, or better still—meet real-life people!
  • You’re subconsciously writing too much of yourself or the people you know in real-life into your characters because that’s what you know! Once you become aware you could be doing this, you open yourself up to see spot it happening.

"You must know your character as you know yourself" is a phrase I must’ve repeated hundreds of times over the years and it is worth repeating again here. And if you really know your characters, and pay attention to the details, your reader will thank you!

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Joanne Grant is an editorial coach with over 16 years of editorial expertise working for the global bestselling publisher Harlequin. Joanne has edited hundreds of romance novels over the years and understands how to coach authors of all genres to deliver their best work. If you’re interested in finding out how she can help you achieve your writing goals, get in touch – Joanne loves to chat! You can find Joanne on Twitter @JoanneMGrant and Facebook at JoanneGrantEditorialCoach.

Laura Resnick

Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series. A monthly columnist for Nink, she is also a past president of Ninc.