Monday, February 21, 2011

Thoughts on characters (part 2)...

Part Two: In which there is a struggle for power...

A good cast of characters will let you get away with a lot. If the reader really cares about them, he or she might be willing to go along with a little more nonsense. Some backtracking or tangents might be a little more allowable, because they let the reader spend more time with the characters.

This doesn't mean that you can sacrifice plot for the sake of your characters though. Even with the greatest cast in the world, a movie will suck if the story goes nowhere. Sure, people will love the characters and quote their lines back and forth, but without something for those characters to be doing, it'd be like watching a bunch of one-liners with  no real context.

On the other hand, you can't sacrifice your characters for the sake of plot. If your plot dictates that your character must do something that character would never do in a thousand years, the character can not do that. In that situation, you can only a) change the plot or b) change the character.

Now, I'm not talking about the sort of difficult decisions that face characters all the time. Like, if your character would never kill someone but they are forced into killing for self-defense or as a solider or something, that is different. This is like that same character suddenly shooting someone in cold blood with no provocation at all.

But say your plot demands that Character A kill Character B, when it is fairly clear that Character A would never do such a thing unless absolutely forced into it. The solution? Either change Character A to make them more likely to kill Character B, or change the plot so that Character A is being forced into it.

Out of character moments are allowed. We all have them, whether we're having a bad day or something we've never encountered before occurs. But we usually at least acknowledge the differences. If a character who is usually very kind is suddenly brutal to someone, there is usually some reason behind it. It's when there isn't beyond "the plot needed to move forward" that it becomes a problem.

Usually, it's never addressed why that character acted so out of character. It's as if the author didn't even notice that their character wouldn't do that. No guilt, no one else asking what was wrong, nothing. It just happens and is treated like a normal interaction, leaving the reader going "huh?".

Any examples you can think of where a character does something blatantly out of character, just to move the plot forward?


  1. As a reader (and a writer) that definitely gets under my skin when I come across a book where I feel like the author doesn't know their characters at all. They fumble around doing whatever the author felt like dictating them to do for the sake of wanting them in a certain place at a certain time. It is for that reason I only write character-driven novels. They are far more compelling, I know them inside and out and they are in charge of their story.

  2. Can't think of an example at the moment, but I know I've run across this.

    There are many an old sci-fi movie without a plot. :D