This weekend, I was working on a pair of scenes in my WIP. In this part of the story, my protagonist's (Patricia) overprotective father (Marcus) is kidnapped. As I read over the first scene, I realized that I'd left out something important. A key part of Marcus's character is that he blames himself for his wife's death, so he'll do anything to protect Patricia. But since Patricia isn't present when he's kidnapped, I'd totally spaced putting anything about her in Marcus's thoughts or reactions. Upon thinking about it, though, I realized he should be going crazy worrying about whether Patricia is also a target and what might happen to her if kidnappers are running around and he's not there to keep her safe.
The first scene was fairly easy to fix; I just had to add a few lines to Marcus's thoughts. The second scene was much harder because I had to change a lot of what I'd written so I could follow up on the concerns I'd raised in the first scene. To make everything work in that second scene, I had to cut or substantially revise some dialogue and action that I really liked. 😥
All this was a good reminder of a hard truth about editing: Clarity trumps everything, but consistency is a close second.
In real life, humans prefer predictability. It makes us feel safe, and it's a lot easier to be consistent than to constantly change how we do things. So most people stick to certain patterns of behavior. For example, if a person tries on an unflattering outfit and asks for others' opinions, a kind person will usually try to find something nice to say, while a blunt person will probably speak their mind no matter how it might come across. But if those responses are switched, the poor outfit-trier will end up confused and may feel blindsided, even suspicious ("You guys are acting weird. What's going on?").
The same thing happens with characters. If they behave inconsistently, it jerks readers out of the flow of the story as they have to stop and think, "Wait, what? Did I miss something?" As this amusing video shows, this mistake drives audiences crazy. If we want to substantially change a character's behavior, we have to lead into it by showing the character's progression toward that change, not just drop it on readers like a freezing-cold water balloon. But the rest of the time, we need to keep our characters within the metaphorical boundaries we've already set for them.
As my experience shows, inconsistent character behavior can be really tricky to spot in your own work. (I've had most of this scene written for over a year and just found my omission this weekend.) Another set of eyes is the best way I know of to catch this issue. If you'd like me to be those eyes for your manuscript, click here to check out my book-editing package.
(Thanks to bantersnaps for sharing their work on Unsplash.)