Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stay in Character: How to Keep Your Characters' Reactions Believable

              If your Big Twist involves the happy little neighbor girl revealing her identity as the chainsaw-toting serial killer, then you’d better have planted some of those hints alluding to the darker side of her character. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a character do something so outrageously not them that you start to question if the author knows their character as well as you do.”

                Those were my thoughts in the last tip regarding The Twist in an earlier post. As I wrote it, I started to think maybe that needed some elaboration.

                It might sound simple at first. There are certain actions that would not be believable coming from a certain character. A sickly boy scared to leave his house might not be the right person to lead a rebellion against a cruel and vicious tyrant. Likewise, a cruel and vicious tyrant probably wouldn’t call off an invasion the moment a hero points out an orphanage full of innocent children sitting right in the war machine’s path.

                But there’s a difference between unbelievable actions and actions that point to character development.

                The key is to take an unbelievable action and make it believable, through the use of backstory, a character’s thought processes, and outside influences that give your character no choice but to act the way they do.

                Backstory: Let’s go back to our cruel and vicious tyrant. He’s a monster. Murderer of thousands, eats fluffy puppies for breakfast without a second thought, he is One Bad Dude. Obviously, he’s not going to lose much sleep over a hut full of lice-ridden orphans.

                But – to use one of the clichéd examples that are quickly becoming commonplace in these posts, for simplicity’s sake – what if our tyrant was an orphan himself? What if the kindly old owner of an orphanage he grew up in was the only person who ever showed him any kindness, and their murder was the tragic event that put him onto the path of violence in the first place?

                What if the orphanage in the path of his war machine was the same orphanage he once grew up in? The last remainder of all his deceased caretaker’s hard work over the years…

                Suddenly a desire to spare that little hut isn’t so unlikely now, is it?

                Certain events in the past shape the character of our characters (XD). I used Darth Vader as an example in the last post, so I’ll continue with that now. Think about what made him who he was. His mother killed, his occupation telling him that he can’t be with his wife, his whole world falling apart… It took a lot to bring him from a sweet little boy into a man in a black mask.

                But knowing what we know about his history, and the events that have shaped him, it’s not so hard to believe that he could change his ways at the last moment and sacrifice himself to save Luke.

                What makes it more believable? Backstory!

                Thought Processes: Logic can be a funny thing. What makes sense to one person might seem outrageous to another. This, my friends, is what allows stupid people to do stupid things. It makes sense to them, after all. Differences in the way people think is also what leads to comedy – unexpected outcomes.

                Take two drastically different characters, and put them in front of a stack of boxes. At the top is the Prize. The trophy. The thing they want most in all the world. One character will get all excited and gather up everything they can find, building their own teetering tower of possessions to try and reach their greatest desire…

                The other will tip over the whole stack and pick the prize up off the ground.

                One character thinks ‘Fight’. The other thinks ‘Flight.’ One character thinks optimistically, with confidence of success in everything they do. The other thinks pessimistically, and always takes the cautious path.

                With every choice put in front of your character, think about the way they think. If they’re outnumbered and outmatched, will they fight anyway, or surrender and plot for a later escape? Would they rather do things the easy way or the hard way? The simple way, or the complicated way? The efficient way, or the fun way?

                As a bonus, knowing how your character will react in a given situation will help you to get to know them in all other ways that help you make your characters deep, and believable, and real to a reader.

                Outside Influences: Sometimes unlikely people are put in unlikely situations… Mostly for the sake of comedy. A genetically modified superspy is forced to attend normal high school, or a sniveling little scaredy-cat is forced to save the world.

                What do both of these examples have in common? The word forced.

                Take away all your character’s options. Either they act, or they die. Period.

                Let’s bring back that sickly boy, who’s scared to step outside his front door. In his mind, war has nothing to do with him. He’d rather sit inside and fold his socks than go face our evil tyrant, and the thought of a wielding a weapon is enough to make him break out in hives.

                But if he lives in the orphanage that’s about to be crushed under the tyrant’s war machine… Well then, that changes things. His socks are in danger! Along with all the younger kids, and the people who’ve cared for him his whole life. And maybe his bold, adrenaline-junkie girlfriend, who’s taking up a weapon before they’ve even established the risks.

                If he wants to keep his girlfriend safe, or if he wants to keep her from going in the first place, then he’ll have to go, won’t he?

                Did Frodo have any choice besides bringing the ring to Mordor? Did Harry Potter have any choice but to fight against Voldemort and step into the role everyone expected him to take? Did Marlin have any choice but to leave his safe little home and go after his son Nemo?

                Eliminate all choices but two. Action, and the Unthinkable.

                In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

                Eliminate the Unthinkable, and whatever remains, however improbable, is the action your character must take.

                Know your characters. Know what they will do, and what they won’t do. Figure out what’s necessary to make them do something. Keep their actions believable, and you’ll save your readers a whole lot of frustration.

                What’s the most unbelievable thing one of your characters has ever done? Now what made them willing to do it?

                If you don’t have an answer, maybe it’s time to find one.
(Also, a reminder! The 8th was the first anniversary of the beginning of this blog, and in honor of that, I'm running a contest where if you comment on this post, you could win your choice of either a review for some of your writing or a sketch. More details in the aforementioned post. I was going to have it be a drawing... But honestly I'm thinking about giving everyone who comments either a review or a sketch, since the grand total so far is... Well... Two. XD We shall see. Thanks for reading!)


  1. You, my friend, are an incredible blogger.

    The thing is, I've been having problems with my WIP, and my characters. I've been stumped for some time now, and I think it may be because they're acting out of character.......But I'm not quite sure.

    Going to have to sit down and figure out a thing or two...

  2. You and me both, my friend. XD Just because I know the concepts I'm talking about doesn't mean I don't struggle with them at times...

    "Incredible blogger"? Perhaps. *preens*
    "Incredible writer in general"? Might have some more work to do. XD

  3. What a lovely, well-written post! I shall have to employ the Unthinkable.

  4. Lol. Honestly, I think this is my best post so far. ^^

    I'll have to perservere in maintaining/surpassing this quality in future posts. ;)

  5. Lovely blog post! I love this topic, because it seems to be something so simple (keeping a character in character) yet so many writers seem to find it so hard.

    My favorite example of a character staying in character, yet doing the Unthinkable, is from the short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? In which a young teenage girl (self-centered, selfish, independent) willingly allows herself to be abducted to save her family. Smaller hints in the story, and smaller portions of her personality make this move possible in the end. The little hints and tricks along the way are always important. ^.^