3 Ways Authors Get 'Off Track' with Their Characters
Written by
Bernadette Geyer
April 2017
Written by
Bernadette Geyer
April 2017

I get it. Characters change over the course of a novel. On an emotional level, the characters you start with may be completely different by the end of the story. As a copy editor who works closely with independent publishers, the issue I see is that characters sometimes change nicknames, eye color, or other physical characteristics throughout the course of the story. That is a huge potential problem.


Writing a novel takes a long time. Even consecutive chapters may be written several months apart. When you’re writing an important scene in chapter 31, you don’t want to have to go back through the first several chapters to look up whether or not the childhood neighbor (who has suddenly resurfaced) had a moustache. So let’s say you put one in, having the main character recall something about how it bristled, and this memory is an extremely important key to solving a decades-long mystery.


The problem is, when you last wrote about the character in chapter seven, he was clean-shaven – a fact that was highlighted at the time. If the mustache is the key to the mystery, you must now go back through the first seven chapters of the manuscript and look for references to the “clean-shaven” neighbor and change them to eliminate that facial description.


Another issue I’ve encountered is that a character’s nickname can change from chapter to chapter. This happened with a story I was editing, which followed a group of seven girls who had gone to school together. The big problem was that their nicknames kept changing, so that it was difficult to keep track of who belonged with which nickname and who, exactly, was being referred to in a passage.


If you are submitting a manuscript for an editor’s consideration, you don’t want that person to be the one to spot issues like this. You want to make sure these inconsistencies are nipped in the bud – before you finish the manuscript.


The following are the top three ways authors get “off track” with characters. Watch for these in your own writing.


1. Physical descriptions


If your character’s eyes are blue, make sure you don’t refer to them as green or brown later in the manuscript. Keeping track of the physical descriptions of all of your novel’s characters also helps you avoid discovering later on that, curiously, all of your male characters have moustaches as their one distinguishing feature.


2. Backstory


Having a clearly-developed backstory for each character will help you understand how that character may react to any situation that arises later in the manuscript – even if certain details from the backstory never make it into the book.


3. Relationships


Consider creating a mind map to track the relationships between your protagonist, antagonist, and others. If you’ve got as many characters as a Dostoyevsky novel, a mind map could help you keep these relationships straight.


If an editor has to decide between two worthy manuscripts, you don’t want to risk being the one that requires “too much editing to make it publishable.”

Bernadette Geyer offers copy editing, writing, translation, and social media consulting through Geyer Editorial Services. She also leads online workshops for writers, including the upcoming "Simplify Your Book-Writing Process with a Book Style Guide" workshop, which begins April 24, 2017. Click here for more information on the workshop.

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