The Inconsistency of Character

ID-10072565In her book, The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers author Kate Grenville writes that:

“Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they’re inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.”

But what does mean by this? Aren’t characters supposed to be consistent?

They are, but when we write and read fiction, we don’t want to encounter flawless, whole characters who are perfect in every way. If our heroes and heroines were already perfect, what would the point be in going on a journey with them?

And how would we identify with them, since we, as readers, are inherently filled with our own flaws and inconsistencies?

What Kate is getting at here is that characters, while they must be consistently created by a writer, don’t need to be consistent in their fictional existence. As she says, “Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.”

When it comes to fiction and popular genres, inconsistencies are often the key to strong and appealing characters. All compelling characters, in other words, have an Achilles heel.

  • The hardboiled detective who is great at his job, but who can’t control his anger.
  • The bloodthirsty vampire who is capable of love and compassion.
  • The wicked queen who has a kingdom under her belt, but is still obsessed with beauty.

Inconsistencies not only make characters likable, but vulnerable as well. This is important because we need vulnerability in a character in order to empathise with them.

As readers, we need to believe that characters could fail as much as they can succeed, that their ultimate flaw or inconsistency is capable of bringing them down or as much as it can help them grow and change.

In any story, however, inconsistencies or flaws can’t be random. A character’s inconsistencies must somehow tie in with their personal story and relate to their inner fears, goals and arcs.

The overall point is that one way to add more depth to our characters and make them more likable is to give them an ‘inconsistency’, flaw or vulnerability.

Whether they overcome this inconsistency at the end of the story and how you play with these vulnerabilities is up to you (just think of all the flaws and inconsistencies in something like Gone Girl or Catcher in the Rye or even the Turn of the Screw), but I think it’s something that needs to be there, in every character.

For writers, this might sound like one of the most obvious and basic character-building approaches, but I always believe it’s beneficial to go back to writing basics and be consciously aware of how these vulnerabilities are playing out in terms of those character arcs and their journeys.

(Image courtesy of /  Craftyjoe) 


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