Writing Characters Who are Consistent in Actions

A book I finished reading a few days ago has stayed on my mind; I can’t shake it. Not because it was a great story. It was an okay story. I’d rate it 3 of 5 stars. I seldom rate anything 5, so 4 is what I rate a book I really enjoyed reading.

The book is not stuck in my mind because it contained a life-changing message. It’s not because it made me think of the world from a different perspective.

The reason I can’t shake the book from my thoughts and why I can’t help but analyse characters in my novels is because of character consistency. I can accept a lot of twists, but my mind is tripping over the main character, let’s call her Jill, in this story. Here’s a brief description.

Jill and her older brother, let’s call him Jack, live in horrible conditions and must steal food and other supplies from a town their people are at war with. The book opens with Jill taking dangerous risks to get food. The 15-year-old enjoys it and, as the description states, she’s fearless. She runs through town as if it’s an amusement park, avoiding guards and taunting them. Then she comes upon the prince and dares to steal from him. She almost kills him, then flees without a fear in the world. She becomes surrounded by guards, Jack saves her and they escape.

In the following pages, she mentions many times that she’d be lost without her brother. Jack’s all she has since their parents were killed when she was much younger. He takes care of her, raised her and gave her his food when she was sick. He saved her countless times. He gives her little things to help her endure their harsh living conditions. He’d die for her, and presumably, she’d die for him.

Several chapters later, and the two are on a secret mission within the enemy’s castle. Jill proves she is fearless many times. Nothing can stop her; she’s got an ego the size of Jupiter. Then within three pages, she forsakes her loving brother and does nothing.

You read that right. On one page, he reveals himself to the enemy to save her from being discovered, and two pages later, she watches him burn to death for his punishment without her protesting, crying or fighting to save him. The problem was not the killing of her brother, but her reaction to it.

Until now, she’s been fearless. As she stands in the crowd watching them build the fire, lead her brother to the stake and tie him up, she does nothing but think of what others might do to save him. Surely someone will step up, she thinks. He won’t die. But she stands there and does nothing, watching the fire grow and consume him, and him cry out her name.

In the following pages, other characters reveal her brother was not who she thought he was. He wasn’t a bad guy, but an extremist. The author might have tried to console readers with this but two facts remain: 1) Jill had no knowledge of this when she watched Jack die; 2) Jack had always been there for Jill and regardless of what others thought of him, he was still her brother and had treated her with nothing but kindness.

Jill should have screamed, fought to help him, tried to do something other than think someone else was going to take action. Nothing in the story led to me to think someone else would take charge and save Jack. Jill and Jack always had to look out for themselves and each other.

Jill’s lack of action went against everything we learned about her in the first 3/4 of the book. Jill was a girl of action. She loved her brother and told readers she could never live without him. Well, the lack of action led her to do just that.

If Jack died simply to garner emotions from me, then it missed the mark. My eyes were on Jill, who did nothing. As he went up in flames, so did my respect for Jill. She was a coward. Even if she tried something and was beaten down, I could accept that. Doing nothing doesn’t make her the hero regardless of what she did later. I no longer thought her fearless or honourable.

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As an author, this makes me analyse my characters. Are they fearless one moment and cowards the next for no real reason? Do they challenge ten heavily-armed guards yet run from an old woman with a rolling pin? Do they race into a challenge, scared, but going anyways, yet at a critical time do they sit back and hope someone else will accept the challenge?

This is a young adult book, so this, to me, makes it worse. If I had read this when I was 15, my feelings would have been stronger. I’d have hated Jill and wished her dead. I have eight brothers, and the ones closer to my age have gone on ‘dangerous’ adventures with me; we always went that extra mile to ensure the other survived. Siblings are supposed to do that. If not for my sister, I’d have drowned when I was five. If not for my brother, I’d have drowned when I was 18 (the swamp hole I fell into was deeper than expected, and I’d have been sucked beneath the swamp earth). Several times I went where I shouldn’t have to save my brother from a far less worse fate than death. If death was on the line, I’d have raced forward to save him.

I won’t name the book or author because this was the first book by the author, who now has several out. I’m assuming the character building has improved since 2012.

What about your stories? Do you ensure your characters act consistently and if they don’t, is there a darn good reason why?

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