Doesn’t it stop you cold when a character just doesn’t fit into a story? Let’s face it - while reading or watching a movie – hasn’t this occurred to you? I know it has me. I’ll blink my eyes and frown – first thought in my mind is, “really? Would he/she really say or react that way?”
It’s not a good thing! I’m not fascinated or even amused – I’m truly irritated, frustrated, and sometimes even ticked-off. My time, after all is precious and I hate feeling like I’ve wasted it.
We have expectations as a reader or movie watcher. We are caught up in the story – we are experiencing what the characters are feeling . . . and we want what they want … then crash! We are handed an ‘out-of-character’ breach that leaves us scratching our heads. Let’s be honest – that character just would not have done that … or said that… or reacted that way. We feel we know him/her and now we are totally disappointed, let-down, and frustrated.
As writers, we should never let this happen. Oh characters are entitled to shock us, surprise us, and even disappoint us – but they must learn something from it and they have to in some way share what they’ve learned. Our characters can’t be perfect . . . but we do expect them to ‘stay in-character.’
Have you ever been told or have you told someone else, “What’s wrong, you’re not yourself today?” I’ll bet you have. Well the same thing can happen to our characters – and believe me your reader will recognize it immediately. Something must be up! If there is ‘no reason’ for this strange or uncharacteristic behavior, then the reader will conclude you (the writer) has failed – the character is now unbelievable. You never want that to happen.
It breaks down to the writer making sure the reader understands why there is a change in your character. Did he/she just find out they have a tumor? Did his/her brother end up in jail? Did he/she get drunk and end up revealing some life-threatening information? Is he/she afraid of commitment?
Maybe the reader doesn’t really know the character as well as they thought. He/she has an underlying secret. It’s a great way to surprise the reader – sometimes it even surprises the writer. We learn about our characters as our story unfolds – and often times their personality unfolds with the story.
But – you can’t just drop red herrings and expect the reader to buy it. The trick or challenge here is creating characters we care about, believe we know and are rooting for — but retain the element of surprise – taking the reader with you.
Once we understand or are privy to the reasoning behind a character’s confusing behavior, we can accept it, even be excited about the change in character or direction of the story. Make sure all uncharacteristic behavior is explainable. If you don’t – it’s just bad writing.