The Writer’s Craft – Keeping Characters Consistent

(Pensacola, Florida; Apr. 27, 2022,) – This week I celebrate the publication of And So It Begins, my third Accidental Detective novel!

Available in paperback and ebook format on Amazon, this story opens in late 2018 with the newly-retired Isaac Shepherd adjusting to life after the Navy…and then his memories whisk the reader back to the dark days of 1999 when he faced down his first murderer.  And So It Begins provided a unique challenge because, as a prequel, I had to introduce readers to Isaac in the present-day of 2018…and Isaac from 20 years ago. 

Crafting a prequel brings into high relief the daily challenge of all fiction writers, be they print, screen, or stage.  This challenge is the task of keeping characters consistent.  Readers are quick to notice, complain about, and then abandon a story or series in which the characters don’t behave consistently.  Now, let me define that term, ‘behave consistently.’  This does not mean the characters never evolve, grow, change, and mature.  What it does mean is that, even as the characters evolve, grow, change, and mature, they and their behavior are always recognizable as them!

This brings me to Isaac Shepherd of 1999 vs. Isaac Shepherd of 2018.  The two versions of the character are both clearly the same man, and just as clearly very different men.  1999 Isaac is very much still a big kid, even at 27 years old, but 2018 Isaac has matured into a settled, confident man.  And, yet, when you read And So It Begins (especially after reading the first two books in the series, Proud Lion and The Norfolk Murders), you can easily see how 1999 Isaac grew into 2018 Isaac.  The pieces and personality are all there; what changes over time is how the character relates to himself and reacts to the world.  In other words, he’s easily recognizable in both eras because he’s the same person.

Achieving this goal can be tricky, especially when you work backward into a prequel, but ‘tricky’ is not ‘impossible.’

One aspect of Isaac’s personality is his ongoing fight with PTSD-driven depression and anxiety.  With the only exception being early-year prequel stories (such as And So It Begins), Isaac will always be shown to have an anxiety or panic attack at least once per book.  PTSD-related issues are a huge part of many people’s lives (especially veterans); therefore, showing Isaac’s struggle with this in each book reinforces the character’s consistency.  I ‘excepted’ the early-year prequels from this rule for a simple and logical reason: those early-year stories are the foundation of Isaac’s later PTSD.  He can’t have PTSD reactions until he goes through the traumas that cause them.

1999 Isaac is a full-on egotist, but with a humility born of deep insecurity and uncertainty balancing it out.  This tension erupts into his behavior through things like talking at the speed of Mach 2, a tendency to act precipitously, and even a willful ignorance of the dangers of playing detective.

2018 Isaac is a full-on egotist, but with a humility born of maturity and experience balancing it out.  By 2018, the insecurity is largely gone, but the humility remains, only now it’s a much healthier humility springing from an honest ability to own what he’s good at while recognizing that other people bring equally important gifts to the table as well.  He knows he might the man to put the puzzle together and catch the bad guy, but 2018 Isaac gratefully accepts that he can only do so when everyone around him contributes their talents.

In other words, Isaac is a full-on egotist balancing it with humility no matter what era you meet him in.  This is an example of a consistent personality trait.  What changes in his character is not the trait, but what fuels the trait and how it’s expressed in his behavior.  Isaac, like all of us, is insecure and unsteady as he enters the world, but, for him, these aspects are made all the worse by the specific circumstances shown in And So It Begins.  The friendship of people like Abraham Gray helps trigger Isaac’s growth from a scatterbrained nitwit with an intellectual gift into a seasoned detective—mentor to younger people in his own right.

However, just as with us in real life, some of Isaac’s quirks never quite soften with age.  The most obvious example of his is his love of milk-curdlingly awful puns and one-liners (otherwise known as ‘dad jokes’).  This is another means of keeping a character consistent; we all  have traits and quirks that rarely change as we age.  The writer must be careful in handling these so they don’t become tiresome, but, again, these reinforce the fact that the character is always in character even as they age.

Isaac also has a ruthless streak that I began to hint at in Proud Lion and The Norfolk Murders, and further foreshadowed in And So It Begins.  This trait has not had a chance to come to the fore, but by seeding it carefully in seemingly casual lines of dialogue in the current books, it sets up a foundation so the reader will not be shocked when Isaac finally drops his control and lets this ruthless cruelty take center stage.  By subtly presaging this particular trait, I have, again, enabled the reader to see that Isaac is always Isaac, a brilliant man and great detective who cares deeply about the people and world around him…but possessing of a violent temper enabling him to engage in shockingly pitiless actions when he believes such actions are the only course left to him.

Abraham Gray, by contrast, is a much more obviously stable and sedate man…but this surface tranquility is akin to a tent covering a rather active circus.  1999 Abraham and 2018 Abraham are men of deep passions cordoned off by a rational mind and fierce loyalty to the rule of law.  However, Abraham’s passions still show through; hence his love of music and his skill as a composer.  In his way, he’s just as deeply emotional as Isaac, but his upbringing and life experience shaped him into a different man who expresses these traits in different ways and to different degrees.

These two men are polar opposites in temperament while mirroring each other in fundamental ways.  This makes their partnership and friendship all the more realistic because, while they can understand each other, their unique personality traits and behaviors complement the other’s.  Isaac is the far more colorful character, a larger-than-life figure who exhibits an ever-growing zest for living born of his suicide attempt and quirky personality.  Abraham is the more subtle, ‘stable’ of the two, bringing a much-needed ‘speed bump’ to Isaac’s warp-speed manner of living.  Isaac speeds Abraham up; Abraham slows Isaac down.  This relationship formed almost by accident in 1999 as shown in And So It Begins, but the reader will notice that it’s a consistent relational foundation still informing their interactions in 2018.  Again, this is consistency of behavior, thus consistency of character.

Readers demand consistency in their characters.  A character whose behavior, motivations, and personality traits drift all over the map can only work if that character is specifically shown to have a mental health issue (like the Joker in Batman).  Otherwise, readers are turned off because they’ll have no idea who the hero (or villain) really is from one moment to the next.  Establishing solid personality traits that never change grounds your characters, allowing readers to enjoy watching how those characters evolve in their expression of those traits.  Keeping your characters consistent will go a long way to building a loyal following eager to read the adventures you imagine!

-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/HW7p3-kOsP4

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