The Curious Case of the Cursored Character

By Elaine Viets

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   Meet Lisa. She’s pretty, plump, tall, lean, rangy and soft with tiny white teeth.
    What?
    You’re not going to meet that woman. She doesn’t exist. Not anymore. I discovered this misshapen creature lurking in Checked Out, my May 2015 Dead-End Job mystery. Lisa disappeared after the rewrite.
    I do at least two rewrites for every novel, sometimes more. I ruthlessly kill whole chapters if they seem flat and dull. Judicious pruning is a key to good writing.

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    Checked Out is my 14th Dead-End Job mystery, set in South Florida. The series features private eye Helen Hawthorne. In Checked Out, Helen works undercover in a library, looking for a missing million dollars.
    I did some looking, too, when I was rewriting Checked Out. I did a “seek and find” search for Lisa, a major character.
    Oh, what I found.
    Lisa is first introduced in Chapter 9. I mean that literally. Helen, who’s a volunteer at the mythical Flora Park Library, is introduced to Lisa, the board president.
    “Lisa held out a soft pink hand,” I wrote.
    Then I said, “Lisa was a pretty, plump fifty-something woman in a lavender pantsuit.”
    Later on, Lisa “showed her tiny white teeth.”
    And “Lisa placed her warm, plump hand on top of Helen’s.”
    Lisa’s not getting cozy with Helen. Not that kind of cozy, anyway. The Flora Park  library is supposed to be haunted by a ghost, and Lisa makes everyone who works there attend a séance to communicate with the dead woman. Helen believes the ghost is a live person, but she goes to the séance to study the reactions of the ghost hunters. 
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    In Chapter 15, Lisa appears again. “She walked in, looking lean and lithe in a gray chalk-striped pantsuit,” I wrote.
    Lean and lithe? What happened to pretty and plump?
    My “seek and find” search suddenly found a totally different Lisa. Next she’s described as “tall and rangy.” Then she’s “tall and thin.” Around Chapter 31, I finally decided she has “springy blond hair.”
    What was she for 30 chapters – bald?
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    Lisa needed a major rewrite. She got it, from the moment she was introduced. I found newer, better, and more creative ways to describe this woman.
    Then I checked the other major characters, and found more inconsistencies. It took a week of rewriting, but I fixed them. I think Checked Out is a better mystery because I checked out each character.
    Use your cursor to seek and find your best characters.
    All it takes is some light mousework.

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NOTE: I’m at Bouchercon this week, where “Fixin’ to Die,” my 9th Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper Mystery, has been nominated for a Barry Award. My panels are listed at Events on www.elaineviets.com.

9 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Cursored Character

  1. Have a great week with all the wonderful writers at Bouchercon!
    As a reader I have caught a few of these character irregularities. I do prefer when the author (and team) find them and fix them.

  2. Elaine is going to be tied up today (not literally, we hope!) at Bouchercon, so our fellow TKZ’ers are going to respond until she returns. This is a really important “check” she describes. I call it a “consistency edit”. I’ll go through the manuscript repeatedly, searching for any character or setting that gets mentioned more than once. During one consistency edit, I once discovered that all–ALL–my secondary characters had blonde hair and blue eyes. Yes, I was consistent, but way too much so. I had to rewrite to add variety and increase the strength of of individual characters.

  3. Oh bless you all for showing us that the pitfalls we fear need not be road blocks in our careers, but hurdles that *can* be systematically overcome. You so totally rock!!

  4. Thanks to Elaine for making me feel like I’m not the only one who manages to write characters that somehow morph and change in the middle of the book. I keep a cheat sheet handy so I don’t forget because it’s pretty obvious when brunettes suddenly become blondes, and the plump become the lithe:) Always pays to check your characters just like the plot, for holes and inconsistencies:)

  5. Consistencies like these are one of the many aspects I look for in my editing of fiction manuscripts. Fortunately, they seem to jump out at me. Also minor name changes that sneak in there, and how a character’s make, model, and color of vehicle magically changes from one day to the next, with no mention of trading in her old one!

    Thanks, Elaine, for reminding us of the importance of doing searches to check for anomalies of any sort. And Clare’s suggestion of a “cheat sheet” is an excellent one! I do that, too, as an editor.

  6. Too funny. One of my author friends kept a spreadsheet of her character traits over her 70+ books after she realized she’d named over a dozen of her heroes JAKE.

  7. Does this happen because an author hasn’t fleshed out their characters? Or does the author develop their characters more while they write? Sounds like a catch 22 if you are a pantser, but like a prison cell if you go for structure.

    I want my characters to develop, but not like that. lol

  8. I had the opposite problem. After she read my first draft of my first WIP, my wife commented that virtually all the secondary and minor characters had been described as either short and stocky, or lean and wiry.

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