The Nitty-Gritty of Editing: Consistency

CC image by Matt Hampel

Welcome to the next part of this editing series. If you haven’t read the first post by Rachelle Clifford, you should. She’s letting me take over this week with the topic of consistency. Before I begin, I want to separate what we mean by editing in this series. This is not the what (content revision of plot, character, etc.) of your story. This is the how you reveal your story. It is detailed. It takes time. But if you really set yourself to doing it, you will have a great story.

Here are some things to keep in mind when editing for consistency.

CC image by Matt Hampel

CC image by Matt Hampel

Names and Spellings
This may seem like an obvious thing to keep consistent, but it’s worth mentioning. I have read stories, usually rushed creative writing class stories, where the main character’s name changed halfway through. It was a jarring experience, and I swore to myself that I would never even think of changing a character’s name or the name of a place because I didn’t want to risk missing an instance of the old name and confusing the reader.

But then Rachelle found a better name.

I know enough now that sometimes a name change is for the better. But if you change a name, you must make sure you are consistent. Carry it out all the way. Search for instances of the old name, but don’t let your word processor replace it with the new one without you seeing it.

The same goes for spellings of characters and places, whether you intentionally change it or not. If you spell the character’s name wrong once, your readers will know, and you will detract them from the story you want to tell.

Character Descriptions
This is another potentially obvious one that is still worth mentioning. The best example I can think of is a character’s height, especially in relation to others. It’s hard to forget what color hair your character has, but when you’re writing, height is one of those things that might slip. It will show up in subtle ways. If your character is short but can see over the heads of people in a crowd, the readers will notice something is off. They may not be able to put words to it, but it won’t sit right with them. Make sure you watch out not only for the blatant discrepancies but those subtle ones as well.

CC image by Nick Kenrick

CC image by Nick Kenrick

Character Quirks and Mannerisms
Each of your main characters (arguably all of your characters, main or not) should have defining characteristics that are uniquely theirs. A good example to look for is what characters do when they’re nervous or scared. A character might fiddle with the hem of her shirt, dig her nails into her palms, crack her knuckles, twirl her hair, grit her teeth, pace, smoke a cigarette, etc. But one character should not do all of these things. Pick one, maybe two, per character, and let each character become distinct from the others.

Taking it a step further, if all of your characters crack their knuckles when they’re nervous, then you are losing out on an opportunity to create multifaceted characters. You are also deadening your readers to that particular trait; a potentially powerful tool at your disposal has suddenly been blunted. It is silly to think that everyone in real life does something as specific as cracking their knuckles when nervous, and the same is true of your characters.

I won’t say that every trait has to be specific. My characters raise their eyebrows and shrug across the board, but they typically do so in unique ways or at unique times. Still, I have chosen to make those two traits universal. And I need to go back through again and make sure my characters have consistent, unique quirks all their own.

Point of View
Maybe you’re not like Rachelle and me. Maybe you only have one viewpoint character for your story and don’t have to struggle to keep a scene in one character’s head and not slip into another’s head or reveal too much about them.

Still, you have other problems to worry about with point of view, and it goes back to remembering who your characters are and where they have been in life. My biggest struggle with this kind of thing is with metaphors. I get the urge to compare something to the ocean (probably a cliché rearing its ugly head), but then I remember that my viewpoint character has never seen the ocean, so the metaphor makes no sense coming from her. Then I remember that I actually have two characters that have never seen the ocean, and I get to exercise all sorts of creativity coming up with non-cliché, non-ocean metaphors.

The point is that your characters will view the world differently based on their background. They will see things you would not, and they won’t see things that you would. Make sure you keep them consistent to themselves, their background, and the world they live in.

Fact Checking
This consistency issue crosses over into many of the others, but I wanted to separate it out because it is vital to your story and your credibility as an author. Your readers relate to your story through their own reality and imagination. And because they interact with your story through reality, you owe it to them to base as much as you can in reality, no matter your genre.

The biggest example I think of is medical related issues. I would love to see more authors fact check the limits of a human body before writing about something they made up and having it be a vital, plot-changing part to their story. TV is notoriously bad at this: CPR is not as romantic as it seems (in fact, done properly it should break your ribs); no, most women don’t have a baby right after contractions start. Am I saying I know for myself what is realistic or that I get it right every time? No. But Rachelle and I do have her medically trained husband to at least help us base injuries, recovery times, etc. in reality.

Think about the people you know who might be experts in different areas. Talk to them and find out if something is realistic or feasible. Here are some things to look out for: numbers, animals, careers, technology, languages, etc. Don’t just make stuff up because you’re writing fiction; do your research. Even if you don’t have an expert, you have Google.

Keep time in mind, and follow through all the ramifications of your fact checking. If a normal person can walk comfortably about three miles in an hour, then he can’t feasibly walk one hundred miles in one day at a leisurely pace.

Also think of seasons and weather. It gets dark earlier in winter than summer. If it rains the night before, there is likely to be mud in the morning. We take these things for granted in the real world. But if you know your world enough to know these kinds of details, your world will begin to take on reality for your readers.

You also have to be consistent with your setting and your metaphors. With the advancements of technology we have new technology related metaphors: shut down, mode, reset, boot up, etc. Depending on your setting, you’ll need to examine modern references like this. It goes back to really knowing your characters and your setting.

If your story includes a magic system, be consistent in using it. If you’ve invented rules while writing or rewriting, go back and make them clear early on. Don’t subvert your own magic system without thought.

I suspected this post might be too long for my remaining thoughts on style, tone, and mood, but I would rather give those three the real attention they deserve concerning consistency than cram them in now, so they will have to wait.

If you want to start getting an eye for consistency, go watch the Youtube channel Cinema Sins. He points out the inconsistencies of movies, and if you watch enough, you begin to see things like he does. After that the best advice I can give you for now is to create a consistency style guide or map. The longer your work, the more necessary this is. Maybe this barebones outline would help you get started for your characters. You can modify it for use with settings too.

Character Name:
Physical description:
First described (chapter, scene):
Significant accessories (when acquired; meaning; description; chapter, scene of first appearance):
Unique quirks:
Significant moments/character interactions:
What you learn about them (the progression of revelation):
Significant moments of growth:

Another useful thing would be to take any one of these attributes and compare/contrast among your characters. To me, the most useful would be those unique quirks, because you really want to distinguish your characters from each other, and this is a perfect way to do so.

I hope this helps. Stay tuned for more on this topic and the other topics to come.

By Tracy Buckler