Some characters are a lot easier to work with on paper than others. I'm quite lucky in those terms; normally I'll have a pretty clear idea of a character before I start the story, and once I start working with them on paper, everything else falls fairly neatly into place contextually.
But sometimes that doesn't happen. And that's when things get frustrating.
I'm betting we've all run into at least one character that blatantly refuses to comply with us. You know what you want them to be like, but for some reason, every time you start using them, they won't do it. Pinning down their personality is about as successful as nailing jelly to a tree, and it shows in the writing. They are inconsistent, they are unrealistic, and they are thoroughly ruining your story.
Next to full-on Writer's Block, I'd say inconsistent and ill-defined characters are my biggest writerly hiccup.
The lead character of my 2011 NaNoWriMo project, the infamous Vidal, is a prime example. Sometimes he was quiet and unassuming, and sometimes he would be spitting so many insults across the room that it was a wonder he wasn't stabbed. He would go from calm, cool and deceptive to an insecure, hot-headed wreck in the space of a page. And in a story based entirely around his deceptive abilities, it was a recipe for disaster.
It only got worse when I realised he was following my moods, my rules, and my idea of morality. Heck, he was even talking like me. I didn't want a self-insert. I wanted an independent personality for people to love, hate and silently wish to hi-five in his more devious moments.
So where did I look to solve the problem? My history textbook.
People in history have been copying the performance and strategies of others since the Romans embarked on their quest for world domination, and there are so many wonderful personalities and catastrophes roaming about that inspiration is endless. For Vidal, I found the perfect match - the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII's first minister and iron-handed ruler of France. For a character who would later become known as the Kingmaker himself, Richelieu was a wonderful reference point for character and strategy in a dangerous political environment. Vidal's own namesake, writer Gore Vidal, was also a massive help when it came to working out how my canny plotter's idea of humour worked (which is more important than it sounds in the context of the actual story).
And so it went on, looking at similar historical situations and political systems to get myself out of the puddle of I-Have-No-Idea-How-To-Do-This into which the story had sunk.
Of course, I'm not saying that one should simply go around and mash up bits of history in order to create a character - I don't know if plagiarised personalities are punishable, but trying to throw in too many elements to create an ideal character for your story certainly runs the risk of simply making them overcomplicated, and even more prone to schizophrenia than they were before.
However, especially if you're writing a story that is set in a time or place you do not have any direct knowledge or experience of, historical reference is a fantastic way of making it easier to bring a place to life. Got a tough feisty farm girl about to embark on a quest? Why not get some tips from Joan of Arc, or one of the Medici girls? What about that priest who's sure there's something wrong in his institution? Martin Luther might be a good starting point there.
You don't even have to use famous figures from any period of history, either. Why not imbue your character with bits of personality from your grumpy aunt, your caustic grandfather, or your eccentric newt-collecting cousin?
After all - people are just as weird in real life as they are in books.
What about you, readers? Have you had similar problems with inconsisten characters? How do you resolve problems like that? Has anyone else followed the path of borrowing traits from others to help pin your little darlings down? Or do you have a different strategy altogether?
~ Charley R