I love it during a critiquing session when someone tells me something like, “Oh, this guy would never do that! It’s out of character. You need to fix that.”
After my unsuccessful attempts to tell them why they’re wrong for saying this, I find myself looking deeper in the critiquer’s claims. I often discover that they‘re right—and that’s a good thing. This means that I’ve successfully created a character with whom my reader can associate and they can recognize when my character is being “told” by me to do something that he just wouldn’t do.
This level of characterization can be hard with a fictional character, but when it happens, the character jumps from the book and comes alive. When it doesn’t, the character seems two-dimensional and never seems to leave the flat page.
Consistency is important in characterization. People tend to be consistent in real life, and what are we representing with our fiction, but real life?
Take for example, my dad.
I’ve been missing my dad a little more than normal this last week, because Sunday marked the one year anniversary since he passed away. I was looking at old photographs of my dad last week and was amused when I saw him wearing almost the exact same shirt in pictures taken 40 years apart. The first photo shows him when I was a baby in the late 1960’s; he's standing next to my mom, who is holding me in her arms. The second photo shows him near the end of his life in December 2008, a little over a year ago and just two months before he died. You have to examine the photographs carefully to see that my dad is, in fact, not wearing the same shirt.
My dad was consistent. His tastes in clothing, apparently, didn’t change much from when he was a young father to when he was an elderly man about ready to pass from this world.
I hope I can catch that same sort of consistency in the characters I create—and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of those characters end up being a lot like my dad.