Internal consistency is a relatively straight-forward concept and sort of self-explaining: Your narrative’s internals are consistent. What are the internals? That’s a little more abstract, but most of us probably assume they’re all the bits that go into a world, all the background info and backdrop and setting and so on. They’re the foundation upon which the narrative is built, and, to use a tired analogy, they’re rather like an iceberg with the world the reader touches upon poking from the surface and the rest hidden underneath the roiling seas.
In many respects, world-building and internal consistency go hand-in-hand. A world near ours, or that is ours, will generally have an easier time of ensuring internal consistency compared to a fantastic world. As the author’s world ventures further from ours, the more it must be built upon and fact-checked. Though, that’s not to say this topic is limited to the world; characters are a vital part of internal consistency. After all, I’m sure we’ve all read a book or two where the characters didn’t behave as expected once they were established, or acted… out-of-character.
So, we can say there are two kinds of internal consistency: The world and the character.
Let’s start with characters.
As I mentioned in the post preceding this one, characters must be consistent and believable. Yes they can develop and change as the narrative marches onward, but it must be in a way that makes sense. If you have a submissive, shaking waif of a character they are not going to suddenly become an assertive, confident individual after witnessing some heroic event or after having a bit of internal monologue where they tell themselves they’re going to change. Change takes time. A lot of time. And, in many circumstances, the change is never permanent, never total.
This delves a bit into psychology, but I think it’s something we all intrinsically understand at some point, even if we’re not cognizant of it. The character with poor self-esteem and image in their late 20s is likely never going to get over it. The scrawny male lead who throws himself into body-building will never truly get over their body dysmorphia. In fiction and real-life we can see examples of this in people and characters who go to extremes because it’s never good enough. They’re never strong enough, never thin enough, etc. After significant therapy many can get a handle on it, but for most, it never goes away. (Of course, it must be added, opinions vary heavily in this regard and I am certainly not an expert in these matters.)
So, having a character become someone else overnight is going to be jarring for a lot of people. A character who gradually changes is going to be much better. A character who, despite going from street urchin to hero, still has moments of insecurity is going to be much better.
Well, to an extent. Just as sudden character developments can smack a reader out of their suspended disbelief, a character who always seems to fumble in a crucial moment due to an insecurity can become irritating. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, but once struck will pave the way for great characters. Consistent characters the reader will be able to follow along with and understand them.
At this point you may be thinking “No shit,” and I agree. By the time an author is ready to write their first book, this should be something they understand, even if they don’t know it. Yet, so often we read characters who violate a lot of these principles. They’re inconsistent. Sometimes it’s intentional, but more often than not, it’s not. We may be able to spot these weaknesses in other writing, but it’s easy to overlook it in our own. The first step to addressing the problem is to be aware of it, to be able to analyze it.
Whenever you have a climatic moment, an epochal moment for a character, it’s important to ensure however they come out of it is plausible, consistent. And, just as well, that their reason for getting into the situation makes sense. To use a trope of awful horror movies, “Why did character X go upstairs when the killer is in the house?”
When writing your characters, always ask yourself if it’s really something the character would do, would say. Don’t try to force them into scenarios they’d never be in just because the plot demands it.
When your characters have good consistency, they’re well on the way to being good characters. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Hmm.
Worlds are much the same yet. Events don’t have to be realistic, but they do have to be plausible. After all, magic and much of sci-fi is not realistic yet as long as there’s solid internal consistency, readers will happily follow along.
As mentioned earlier, worlds rooted or set in our own are the easiest to ensure consistency. Makes sense seeing as how we have a bevy of comparisons, resources, and history at hand to act as guideposts. The further the world deviates from our own, the more complicated matters become and the more worldbuilding must be done.
Let’s use magic as an example. How often does magic exist in the world as, well, magic? Some characters can use it, some can’t. Maybe dragons exist and can all use it, but only a couple people. Maybe the people that can use magic can do so because at some point a human and a dragon banged and now those magic-wielders could all trace their ancestry to that steamy moment.
Which does raise another matter of consistency—How were they sexually compatible and able to produce a child?
Back to the magic. In a few lines we’ve added a touch of consistency to the usage of magic, given it some rules to follow. A good first step, but let’s continue. When someone wishes to shoot lightning out of their fingers, how do they zap instead of, say, setting themselves on fire? There must be some logic, some rules behind the magic that allow it to be controlled. If the magic was a completely wild force, it’d just do whatever and no one would ever be able to make it do something useful.
This is where it gets tricky and a lot of people stop and just say “It’s magic!” Sort of a cop-out, don’t you think? The characters never delve into how they control the magic or wield it, only that they can. At best there might be a scene or two where they talk about how they use it, but it’s limited to “feelings” and “Imagine you’re Palpatine and that guy over there is Windu.” And suddenly lightning.
Understandably, this is probably because how do we codify and describe something like magic to people (the readers, us as authors) who can’t experience it? It’s like describing sight to someone who was born blind. Or, even the reverse, someone who was born blind trying to describe what it’s like to not have sight to us who can see.
Let’s try anyways.
Those who can wield magic can do so because they can tap into zero-point energy owing to an interesting set of genes that allow their cells’ mitochondria act as sort of a antennae for this energy source. This energy can use the body’s nervous system as a conduit to flow around, and in turn, the body can marshal this energy about as it would control its muscles. Through a bit of innate, genetic understanding and some practice, not unlike physical therapy, a person can learn to control the flow and focus it. Perhaps to their fingertips. Once enough of this energy accumulates at their tips, Zap!
Is it flimsy? Oh yes. Does it rob the magic from the magic? Certainly. Does it provide a foundation and set of rules for magic to follow? Also yes.
One of the big things about our earlier iceberg analogy is that the reader never has to know this. The midichlorians can stay as a few lines in the author’s notes, but, by having them, they provide a means to achieve consistency in the magic. Some people are stronger because they have more of them. Some weaker because they have few. To the reader, the magic is still magic, but it’s obeying rules behind the curtains.
By having a solid foundation, the structure built on top will have better odds of not falling apart. This is the first, and I’d say, most important step in achieving internal consistency.
A second example: Non-human races. Along with magic, this is the biggest area I see where writers ignore a lot of the material that goes into making a race function. Why do vampires and werewolves exist? They just do. Bullshit, they had to come from somewhere. A person didn’t just roll out of bed one day and oops, they’re a vampire now.
Again, this is something where it’s easy to say how people become vampires at the time of the narrative. Bitten, leered at, rubbed up against, etc. Why? Virus, parasite, curse, etc. All right, this is all well and good, but how did that first vampire come about?
This goes for aliens as well. The reader may only see a tiny bit of the aliens (Let’s assume they’re friendly sapients), but how do they work? What’s their government, their nation, culture, society. How did they get to the point they’re at in the narrative?
And, just as important, does it make sense? Does it follow logical (though not necessarily realistic) flow and progression?
There’s a reason why worldbuilding can take months or even years. It’s awfully tempting for us to say “To hell with all that work” when the reader will never experience 90% of the material and thought that goes into worldbuilding. But, when that effort is put it in, it does show. It does pay off. The world will be more immersive, more realistic (as paradoxical as that might be at times), and more better.
Provided our writing skills are up to snuff, anyways.
Writing is hard.