Stay true to your characters but never at the expense of boring your reader

Stay true to your characters. I’ve heard the commandment a thousand times, but I’m still not entirely sure what it means. Sometimes it’s said in opposition: be true to your characters, not to your story. In that case, I take it to mean you shouldn’t sacrifice a character’s consistency to create a better story or more easily progress your current one. If your detective prefers brunettes, he shouldn’t suddenly choose a blonde because the blonde is the one hiding the stolen jewels. In good fiction, the blonde should don a brown-haired wig. Problem solved. However, that’s an optimal solution because it’s true to both the character and the story when being twice true is possible. When there is no optimal solution, when the detective must falsely choose the blonde or else you must choose a different story, I don’t know why character should trump story. There’s never an explanation.

I’m wary of statements with apparently self-evident explanations. I finished reading a book yesterday. It was a brilliantly-written book constructed of seemingly unrelated anecdotes, jokes and situations with sometimes-recurring characters. At the end, there was a brief essay. The essay began: Although you may think the book’s construction makes no sense and there’s no rhyme or reason to the order of anything, that’s not the case at all. In fact, the book is carefully structured. The essayist then moved on to other topics.

On its own, Stay true your characters is even more beguiling. If I created a character, how could I possibly be false to it? It’s my creation. It is what I make it. If my detective prefers blondes on Monday, redheads on Tuesday and brunettes when they’re hiding the jewels, so be it. He’s an inconsistent detective with no reason for his choices, or at least no stated reason. That’s not falsity. That is the character.

It can be a no-no to readers because most readers like predictability, which is why genres exist. However, it doesn’t mean that I’m being false to my detective. If you’re following a tomato soup recipe and you end up throwing a bunch of random shit into a pot and make an awful tomato soup full of strawberries and vanilla pudding, you’ve been false to the recipe. If you’re not following a recipe and throw the same random shit into a pot and make an awful tasting liquid, you’ve been true to what you made. Perhaps that’s academic. Perhaps all that matters is that you’ve made something that will make anyone who eats it throw up.

In which case, maybe being true to your characters means making choices that are consistent. If your character comes to an intersection and turns left without giving a reason, he should also turn left the next time he comes to an intersection. It’s like the law. Everybody talks about the law being just, but it’s probably better for the law to simply be consistent. As long as everybody gets her arm chopped off for stealing and everybody knows that stealing leads to arm-chopping, that’s a pretty good legal system. Arguing about whether it’s more just for thieves to lose only a hand rather a whole arm is beside the point if only poor people are ever convicted and rich people get to pay off the judge. When it comes to fiction, this would mean sticking by our decisions. Turn left at intersections and prefer brunettes because that’s some form of narrative stability. It gives the illusion of reality, even if the first choice to turn left was completely arbitrary. If you repeat something long enough, it becomes truth. My detective likes brunettes. My detective likes brunettes. My detective likes brunettes. I don’t even have to tell you why, as long as he doesn’t go after a blonde.

But eventually there comes a point when readers stop liking consistency. We’re a finicky bunch. On one hand, it’s not a western if there’s no cowboy. On the other, it’s so fucking boring because the cowboy in the white hat kills the cowboy in the black hat and rides off into the sunset again. And plot twists should simultaneously be unpredictable and reasonably predictable. It’s an impossible tightrope to walk. In December, I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s scifi film, Gravity, and in the film there’s a rather long shot of the main character rotating in a space station in the foetal position while attached to the station by a tube that looks like an umbilical cord. It’s an image, a metaphor. Yet there’s an entire procession of reviewers and commentators who dislike that one shot because it’s obvious, meaning because they understood the metaphor. Clearly, they would have preferred the metaphor to be so obscure, subtle or badly realized that they didn’t notice it at all. That would be true filmmaking. What an absurd position to hold: I want all metaphors to be so subtle that I don’t get them!

I suppose that was an aside. This is a very unorganized post. The disorganization is not a metaphor. The conclusions are that being true to your characters means choosing a path and continuing along it and only deviating when it’s possible to provide a good reason, like a brown-haired wig; and that readers, and viewers, are tough beasts to please. I know it because I’m one, too, and for the sake of consistency I will remain a tough beast to please. Readers, too, often hold the position that writers should be true to their characters and probably truer to their characters than their stories. As a writer, you need to figure out when this becomes absurd. For instance, let’s say you have a story about a pair of space rangers on Mars being hunted by martians. There are good martians, yellow-skinned, and bad martians, red-skinned, and the rangers have been taught to shoot everything red and spare everything yellow. They never miss a colour and they’re super attentive to visual descriptions. Well, the rangers got separated. Ranger 1, Dan, is in a cave when he’s assaulted by martians. They’re red. Dan notes everything about them and conveys his impressions, by all accounts objectively, to the reader. One chapter ends, another begins. Ranger 2, Philip, gets overrun while crossing a martian plain. Again, the martians are the bad, red-skinned ones. Philip processes the same visual information about the martians in the same order and with the same detail as did Dan.

Be true to your characters and copy-and-paste Dan’s description from the previous chapter to this one?

Of course not. Don’t be an ass. Don’t bore your reader.

Your character is just soup, the same kind as your story and your setting and your theme. You created it by tossing shit into a pot. You wouldn’t start throwing snails, turmeric and lemon skins into your tomato soup just because your reader told you that’s what he likes, would you?

The eureka moment:

Stay true to your character, writer.


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