Editing for Character Consistency

Because writing a novel manuscript takes place over a long period of time, character inconsistencies can crop up. Maybe in Chapter 1 the author says that Joe has never been in trouble with the law but in Chapter 12 he has a history as a felon. As the editor it can sometimes seem puzzling to encounter these inconsistencies—doesn’t the author remember if Joe is a felon or not?—but they happen all too easily in the course of the writing process.

So, our job as developmental editors is not to judge the author for presenting the character inconsistently; our job is to notice and query these discrepancies.

In fact, it can actually be difficult to notice these discrepancies, especially in the case of a novel with a lot of characters, complex plot action, and multiple settings. Who can remember everything that was said about Joe over the course of a hundred thousand words?

Sometimes an author has created character sketches for their characters, and if so, I will often ask to see these before I begin my edit, so that I can have a clearer understanding of what the author’s intentions for their characters are. Other times an author will keep a story “bible” that includes the basic facts about the characters, plot, and story world, and I’ll use that to help ensure I catch any inconsistencies in character presentation.

If not, I will just keep notes as I go along, so that every time I encounter specific facts, like Brigitte’s hair color and home address, I can double-check the fact sheet to ensure that these facts are consistently presented throughout the manuscript. (If you’re a copyeditor, you’ll notice that what I’m talking about bears some resemblance to a style sheet.)

Over time, I’ve trained my memory to hold facts like these in mind throughout the course of the edit, so that my notes do not have to be as detailed as they were when I first started out, but this takes a lot of time and practice and in the short-term, notes are more reliable.

One important note: I sometimes work with newer editors who don’t recognize when an author has deliberately created an unreliable narrator or is making a deliberate effort to show the character is lying about themselves. It’s important not to be so zealous about character consistency that you don’t notice that the inconsistency is part of the point.

For example, if a character is presented as hard-nosed, brusque, and direct but says they are nurturing and caring, this is not necessarily an inconsistency. It may be that this is what the character truly believes (or wants to believe) about themselves.

Similarly, the author may want the reader to pick up on the fact that sometimes the narrator has four siblings and sometimes he has none as evidence that the narrator is unreliable. In this case, pointing out the discrepancy would be . . . well, a “bless your heart” moment.

How can you tell the difference between intentional and unintentional discrepancy in character development? One key is in how the story resolves. If the narrator’s unreliability affects the resolution—for example, our understanding of the story is upended at the end when we realize the character/narrator has been lying about everything (anyone remember Keyser Soza? Or read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?) that’s a clue that the narrator is intentionally unreliable.

If a character’s faulty understanding of themselves is intentional, then that will (or at least should) become obvious over the course of the story: another character challenges them (“Yeah, I felt all your warm nurturing when you sued me!”) and/or the inconsistency is consistently present (that is, the character always believes that they are warm and nurturing despite all of the evidence that they are not). In other words, one-off inconsistencies (Geraldo is bald in all chapters except Chapter 3) are almost certainly unintentional and should be called out in the queries.