Please keep in mind that the following blog entry is, like all other of my writing tips, purely based on individual experience. This is just one technique that works for me, in a field where there are many ways to accomplish the same task. I do not claim to be an expert in any writing field.
Consistent characters are often the key to good character development. As readers, we like to know that characters, either antagonists or protagonists, remain true to the side they choose and we can rely on their decisions to lead to development. Reliability will generate both care and loyalty from readers, giving them a reason to cheer or sneer at them throughout the story. But what about characters facing choices that force them to act out of character, betray their limits, or otherwise corner them into a decision inconsistent with their behavior?
When you place a stress on your character, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of your story, it’s essential that the character reacts in a way that advances development, even if that decision is conflicting to your character’s alignment. A character can react according to his/her tried and true personality, but it also provides a chance for your character to do something drastic or ‘out of character’. Characters can make inconsistent decisions, but the characters themselves do not automatically become inconsistent doing so. In short, as long as the reaction pushes development, it’s considered appropriate even if the decision is inconsistent with the character. Still, it’s important to consider the caveats that accompany your character when they behave against their personal values.
For example, if a dark and mysterious assassin character is assigned to kill a businessman, and discovers his best chance is at a child’s birthday party, would it be appropriate for the assassin to dress up as a clown in order to get close to the businessman and execute the task? This active decision is inconsistent with the assassin’s personality.
If the assassin chooses to only use the scenario to spy on his target, he must consider the lost time waiting for a new, even if more appropriate, opportunity. This reasonable decision, while more in line with how an assassin acts, is inconsistent with his job as an assassin.
While active and reasonable decisions both need to be considered in stressful situations, there will be times when one outweighs the other.
If the action to a stress is heavy, it’s usually the result of a ‘suddenly!’ event, or when an unexpected situation occurs. The character needs to make an immediate decision. Again, the situation will determine if the character will fall back on a ‘tried and true’ method he knows well, or may have to rely on something (or someone) he normally wouldn’t. Acting out of character is often a sign of character rawness, or their behavior when the stakes are high and immediate. (The soonest and best chance for our assassin to kill the businessman is at a child’s birthday party, but he will chance being seen and risk his reputation.)
If the reason to a stress is heavy, it’s often the indicator of a permanent or at least lasting stress. The character has time to develop and weigh the choices a stress brings. (Does the assassin care that witnesses will likely be present when he executes the businessman? If he does care enough and decides to wait, what does he do instead? Is the person who hired him angry at the missed opportunity to complete the one job he was hired for?)
Both actions and reasons eventually become ‘character consequences’ which is essential for character depth. Therefore, it is critical to write your characters into appropriate situations. Character reaction becomes dependent on the situation, and it’s up to the writer to deem the situation as appropriate for a ‘dark and mysterious’ assassin to act out of character in order to accomplish the job. While the assassin could attend the child’s birthday party in disguise and execute the task, as the writer it is important to determine that the assassin is not just doing this because it’s his job (action), but that he has no opportunity to wait for a better situation to develop (reason). Balancing actions and reasons can also aid in pacing the novel.
Remember – your characters aren’t made out of glass. They’re flexible, can change their minds and priorities, and ultimately, are human – so don’t be afraid to have your character make mistakes in their actions/reasons. Making mistakes means the character has flaws, and flaws make characters relateable.
Last, it’s important to remember that actions and reasons frequently come back to haunt a character. Even if the moments are short-lived, most often the memories are not. Remember that when contemplating actions and reasons, you as the writer need to ensure that the actions and reasons are touched upon throughout the novel and ultimately lead to a developed character and ending.
– Beginning your character with consistencies is fine, but stressing your character will result in actions or reasons that should ultimately lead to development.
– An inconsistency is often what begins character development. A decision may be inconsistent with a character’s behavior, but that doesn’t make the character inconsistent.
– Actions and reasons for character behaviors are dependent on the situation. Active reactions tend to be immediate while and reasonable reactions are lasting. Either, or, or both can be used in a situation, and lead to consequences.
– Consequences of actions and reasons often follow the character throughout the story and tend to play a weighing role in the character and ending. It’s okay for your character to act or reason in a way that is ultimately a mistake (flaw).