When Characters Act Out of Character

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Everyone, meet Amber O'Toole! She describes herself as an “author in progress” working on her first science fiction novel. She’s a DIY princess, has horses coursing through her veins, and adores the Oxford comma. She is married to her number one fan, with 2 kids, 2 ragdoll cats, and 4 chickens. She currently blogs about books, power tools, and coffee at amberotoole.com.

You have your title. You named your characters and filled out their attribute list. You have your outline for each chapter and you’ve been very diligent about the details and where you want the story to go. You sit down and start writing and dive into the writing zone—that place in your mind where you start seeing visions and the muse takes over your keyboard. You begin to get sucked into the world you’re creating, so much so that any distraction pulls you back to reality with a jolt. You decide to reread what you’ve just written, and it hits you: your characters did some unexpected, out-of-character things!

So what happened? Sometimes in the flow of creativity, your characters will end up making some of their own changes. Whether it’s how they would not normally react in a situation or completely changing the course of the story, there are a few things you need to watch out for.

Was the emotion/action displayed foreshadowed? If there were some buildup in the previous pages as to why the character would do what s/he did, then it won’t be such a shock to the reader. If your character is more of a Snow White and without merit casts some dark magic, you may need to rethink the scene.

Were you writing the scene in anger? Sadness? Frustration? All of your personal emotions can end up taking control. Remember who you wanted the character to be, and act accordingly. Using your emotions can humanize your characters in a very real way—just make sure it’s the emotion that would be properly displayed in the scene.

Was there a change in personality? This one can be tricky. If you’ve established a motive that is well thought out, you’ll retain some causal believability. If your character is a closeted serial killer, then perhaps the change is warranted without prior notice.

Did an event happen that changed the character? A death of a loved one at the hands of an evil supervillain could explain why your sweet and stable character went rogue as a masked vigilante for revenge. Check to see that the catalyst for this change is well defined.

Are your characters acting differently than in previous publications? I can’t even begin to tell you how much comic book fans hate when a beloved character changes drastically in a new issue. If you’ve established your character in a previous work, make sure there is a clearly defined reason as to the change. When in doubt, be consistent with who you established this character to be. If you want a change, make sure it aligns with the plot, and set a solid foundation.

Does the inner dialogue match the outer actions/words? Unless you’re going for situational irony, how the character thinks and what the character says/does should line up in some capacity to be believable. Unless, of course, you’re navigating the mind of a psychopath. In that case, carry on, brave writer.

Does it add value to the story? Perhaps your character just went in a different direction than what you had on your outline. It happens—those little suckers have minds of their own. Sometimes it can be an interesting turn of events. Maybe the change was unwarranted, but it was more interesting than what you had envisioned in your outline. In that case, keep it. If, however, you strayed down a path you hadn’t intended to travel, you can always fix it in the editing process.

In my case, my main character strayed far from the original idea I had had and made a choice I wasn’t expecting her to make. I went with it for a while, seeing where it would lead. Ultimately, I just didn’t like it better than my original idea. And that’s okay. So, I saved that version but then started again with her making the original choice. The original was the way to go, and now the words flow much more freely.

No matter what amazing journey your characters will lead you on, keep going. Take the road less traveled and see where it may lead. You may just end up with a story that writes itself.

We can dream, right?