Many of the first chapters I see have inconsistent characters. A young woman who nearly has a panic attack walking down the stairs with her sleazy fiancé pulls a knife on him not two pages later? A clear example of the needs of the plot driving the character’s actions. This never works.
Characters must react in a similar, predictable pattern
Think about the people in your life. Who would you call when you need a cheerleader? Who would you call when you need a reality check? A shoulder to cry on? While people respond to situations differently, the same person will usually behave in a predictable pattern. A believable character must do the same.
Plan you characters to make them feel real
There are as many ways to plan characters as there are writers: character dossiers, POV essay, character trait sliding scales. I’ve seen an article using the Myers-Briggs personality test. You could even use a which Disney Princess are you chart. It doesn’t matter as long as it works for you.
What you must have is a set of characteristics and a clear motivation.
What does my character want?
What is he/she willing to do to get it?
What personality faults are standing in his/her way?
What about discovery writers?
As a fellow panster, I often find my character’s personality seems to shift according to my mood. Some tips:
Have a character sheet handy as you draft. Fill in personality traits as you discover them. The simple act of writing them down will help you remember the next time.
Complete your first draft. Then, go back and fill in your character sheets. Keep this sheet handy for your first edit and reference it often.
My process is messy, but it works for me.
After I complete the draft, I do the first edit from back to front. You read that right. I edit my novels from the final scene and work my way back to the beginning. Why? Editing backwards forces me to consider one scene at a time. I also separate the POV’s, treating each as a separate story. This allows me to focus on one character arc and make sure the chain of causation for that character arc remains unbroken. (It also helps make the voice in the prose distinct.)
What does that mean?
A character arc is nothing more than the character’s journey of discovering and overcoming the personality faults that are preventing him/her from reaching their happiness goal. Every journey must have a logical progression. In other words, if you want a character to have panic attacks at the beginning of her story, and by the end you need her to be a confident fighter, you must show that change in personality through a logical progression of events.
In the movie Inside Out, Joy learns through a process of interactions with the other characters that Sadness is a critical component of mental health. At the beginning of the story, Joy believes that letting Reily feel sadness is harming her, but by the end, she is fighting for Sadness to return. Joy’s outlook has completely changed, but we believe this change because we see the individual events that shape Joy’s worldview.
A dynamic character arc must have a clear chain of causation.
For a reader to believe the changes in your character’s personality, you must show the reader what prompts that character’s change.
Define your character arc
Who is my character now?
Who does my character need to be?
What events will prompt that change?
Do I need a character arc?
Depends on what you are writing.
Sherlock Holmes, Iron Man, Hermione Granger, and other “Superman” type characters don’t have much change in their character arcs. So, if you are writing this type of action story, you will need a clearly defined set of personality traits, rather than a dynamic arc.
But if you are writing a second chance at love romance where the MC has to learn to trust again, the character arc is the entire story.
What to do now
If you have already written your draft, check your character’s reactions throughout
Do they still match?
Are changes prompted by meaningful events or plot convenience?
Does my character have/need a dynamic arc?
If you are in the planning stages
Try a few different methods of character building.
See which appeals to you.
Planning your characters will make them feel more real to your readers. By having consistent traits and/or well-defined arcs, your characters will be more believable, more relatable, and more memorable. Readers will connect with them and ultimately love them as much as you do.