Continuity vs. Character Growth

One of the perils of writing regencies is that I tend to write them while I’m half asleep, so I end up with a lot of somewhat disjointed and contradictory passages that I have to stitch together and massage into some kind of story. In this case, a cozy-ish murder mystery.

This can lead to some interesting narrative sidebars, but it does keep the words flowing; if I don’t know what to write next, I just add another clause to the sentence. And since I edit as I go, it works pretty well. Until I start contradicting myself, or making the characters contradict things they’ve done in the past.

Recently, I noticed a couple of passages that, at first glance, contradict the established characters- or worse, turn the MFC, Kate Bereton, into a Girl Boss; rather inappropriate for this type of story. Kate has been quietly helping the MMC, Mr. Reddington, a magistrate, with his investigation. Since she is the victim’s stepdaughter, and lives in the same house, she’s well-placed to know where everyone was at the time of the murder. Kate has been established as quietly courageous and responsible. But she’s an upper-middle class young woman in the early 1800s; she’s expected to be shy and demure, and pretend that she doesn’t know anything about the seedy side of life- and doesn’t want to know, either.

Towards the end of the story, I wrote this:

“Miss Bereton, please leave us,” Mr. Reddington ordered.

Kate rose in response to his command, but paused. “Do you wish me to leave because the law requires it, or because you think me incapable of hearing the truth?”

“I think you are a gently-reared young lady, and you should not be forced to hear such a sordid account as I am persuaded Miss Williams is about to tell. The delicacy of your mind is- I cannot think disturbing your peace in this manner will be of any benefit to a woman of your age and station.”

“That, Mr. Reddington, is a pleasant fiction, and you know it. Two people have died by violence in this house, and I have been obliged to assist in your investigations- and have done it well enough,” she said firmly. “I will not suddenly fall to pieces if I happen to hear the sad story of a young woman’s ruin.” She cast a glance at Miss Williams, sitting forlornly by the fire. “If you truly think I will be irreparably damaged by hearing her tale, I will go. But I expect she will speak more freely, for having a friend present, and, well, I thought there was an understanding between us,” she said, greatly daring, “and I cannot think myself fit to be a magistrate’s wife if I am forever running away from the difficult bits of your life.”

“I do not think you will be irreparably damaged,” he said scrupulously, “but I cannot wish for my wife to share in my duties.”

“And I have heard enough from Miss Reddington to know that I can hardly escape them, if I am to live in the same house as you and share your confidences.”

“Eliza talks too much,” he muttered, then in a more normal tone, “Very well, Miss Bereton, you shall stay.”

It’s not bad, but it’s not exactly the picture of a well-behaved young lady; girls were supposed to obey their elders and betters, and weren’t supposed to be interested in the seedier side of life. And by arguing with Reddington in front of other people, Kate is tearing down both his personal dignity and the dignity of his office as magistrate. Perfectly acceptable and encouraged in any given Hollywood movie, but this isn’t that kind of story, and Kate and Reddington aren’t meant to have that kind of relationship.

It looks like a break in character continuity, but it’s actually an easy fix. Kate merely needs to pull Reddington aside and present her arguments in private, so as not to tread on his dignity in front of other people. Fairly simple, and it makes an apparent contradiction- Kate hiding in the background vs. Kate putting herself forward- into a moment of character growth for both of them; she recognizes his need to appear in control of the scene, and recognizes her own power in getting him to listen to her, and Reddington gets positive proof that she’s capable of choosing to confront the difficult bits of life, instead of merely being swept up in the chaos. Everybody wins.

It’s not always that easy, of course. Sometimes a character does something totally out of the blue, leaving the writer scratching his head and wondering, ‘Where the heck did that come from and what do I do about it?’

Well, you can:

– edit out the out of character moment.

– take the plot in a new direction.

– go back and foreshadow the out of character moment, so it’s no longer quite so out of character. Remember to mention the foreshadowed element two or three times; if you only mention it once, the reader might not notice it.

– ignore it and keep writing- which is less ridiculous than you think; everything on the page will be slightly less vivid than it is in your mind, and the reader might not even notice what is obviously a glaring contradiction to the author. Beta readers can help identify whether a contradiction is obvious enough to fix, or subtle enough to leave alone.

And as always, no matter what you write, someone’s going to love it and someone’s going to hate it, so it’s not worth obsessing over, ‘will they like it?’ That question is a minor problem; don’t get bogged down by it. Just keep writing.

6 thoughts on “Continuity vs. Character Growth

  1. Ah yes. The character’s daughter has vanished and her mom is on the warpath.

    Character A: I try to find the kid and minimize the damage

    B: I get run over in the crossfire

    C: I wander around aimlessly hoping to find something useful because that’s what I always do!

    D: And I stab her in the back!
    Author: Wait… What? Why?

  2. She might even do good works among the poor and so be aware of such tragedies.

    Mind you, where she could do good works would be heavily influenced by her setting.

    1. She’s in her late teens, so, not a lot of time to develop a philanthropic life, but her father is the local clergyman, so she’s not completely in the dark about less fortunate people.

      And Reddington has a point about wanting to shield her from further shock; she witnessed a violent death a few hours before this scene. But Kate’s made of pretty strong stuff, even if she’s quiet about it.

      1. It’s a family business. She would help her mother with them.

        Emma, in the novel, has long been familiar with good works when it opens, even though the allusions are such that a modern reader may have difficulty picking them up

  3. For certain types of writers (and I am one of them), I think there’s always going to be a certain amount of drift between what you initially think the characters are, and what they turn out to be.

    1. Yep. And it’s always for the better, from the perspective of story.

      I love those moments. I keep a writing pad next to the bed for them and use the light from my ereader to illuminate my 3 AM scribbling…

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