In this, I intend to give advice on how to help your characters act out-of-character properly.

Now, some of you may look at that premise and immediately say, “Well, that’s just wrong! Your characters should never act out-of-character!” In one sense, you are correct. However, stick with me and perhaps you’ll get something of value.

Think of it this way: Everything that a person does is a part of his or her character. In that sense, no person in a work of fiction ought to act out-of-character (excepting, of course, something along the lines of mind control, but I’m not going to get into that). However, consider events from the perspectives of the other characters, then think of your own life. Have you ever said or done something that even those that are very close to you were surprised about? These are people that know you almost as well as you know yourself, and yet they were still taken aback by something that, you guessed it, seemed out-of-character for you.

This strikes at the heart of my point. At some time, a character may do something that may not be out-of-character but will seem so to everyone else (including, perhaps, the reader). If done poorly, the reader will mentally call you on it and lose a lot of faith in your characterization. If done properly, it can be quite a learning experience and help to create deep, rich characters.

The main key is to have other characters evince a realistic response. There can also be varying levels of response based upon how well the characters know the one acting out-of-character. I once wrote a scene in which a sweet, mild-mannered young magic user discovered that a young man courting her was actually a vampire, whereupon she immediately drove a sword through his heart and incinerated him. While her sister was not surprised, those present that knew her casually were shocked. The first question she was asked was, “Are you all right?” though she obviously hadn’t been injured in the fight. She was confused, along the lines of, “Yes I’m all right. Why do you ask?”

Her friends brought up the reasons for their surprise: she was gentle and previously demonstrated little inclination to violence. She felt as though she were being accused of some heinous brutality and defended herself, arguing that vampires were especially vicious monsters that deserved and needed to be exterminated. Her sister also backed her up on that.

Imagine how a reader is likely to react if those voices of surprise had not been present. It seems likely his or her thoughts would be along the lines of, “I’m supposed to believe this sweet young girl just toasted a vampire without batting an eye? Yeah right.” It would only be worse if all of the characters were acting as though this had been nothing unusual, because then it feels like the author is trying to convince the reader that the character would behave that way, making the reader resist it all the more. Having those voices of shock show the reader that, yes, what happened was “out-of-character.” It then gives your character the option of defending him/herself, thus providing a rationale for why the action really was in-character, and offering a deeper, more complete look at the character.

In summary, when you have a character do something “out-of-character,” make sure that those around him/her are treating it the way they would treat such an event. Even though this has been called “How to Handle the Out-of-Character Moment,” consider that it may be a lesson in making sure that secondary characters remain in-character. After all, what rings false in these so-called out-of-character moments is the others not responding to it the way they truly would (i.e. acting out-of-character themselves).

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Comment

  1. DrAlligator on 26 June 2009, 19:05 said:

    Love it, very interesting article.

    Human beings by nature are hypocritical by nature. We have multiple faces and can react very definitely to different situations.

    So the key is to highlight/justify this hypocrisy and make it another dimension of the character, rather than ignoring it and just continuing on.

  2. Snow White Queen on 26 June 2009, 22:04 said:

    ‘So the key is to highlight/justify this hypocrisy and make it another dimension of the character, rather than ignoring it and just continuing on.’

    Exactly!

    This is a great article on an interesting topic people don’t usually bring up. Good job, Asahel!

  3. sansafro187 on 26 June 2009, 22:31 said:

    This is a useful article. I was dealing with this sort of thing in my own writing last week. My protagonist had to do something reckless because the scene demanded he respond that way to advance the plot, so when I finished it and started writing the next scene, he himself was surprised and pretty disconcerted, in addition to another character commenting on it.

    It’s kind’ve redundant, but I’d like to add that it really bugs me when authors have characters behave OoC by doing “good” things you wouldn’t expect, and then instead of ignoring it or having side characters react with appropriate surprise, the side characters comment about how X character always acted that way even though the readers have seen that just isn’t true. It’s like an Informed Attribute but with a weirdly out of place shred of evidence to back it up.

  4. SMARTALIENQT on 26 June 2009, 23:55 said:

    Thank you for this article! It was useful, short and to the point, and on a good topic that I had been wondering about. Thank you, Asahel!

  5. Puppet on 27 June 2009, 21:29 said:

    Great article, short but precise and clear. :)

  6. Steph-is-HAWT on 29 June 2009, 01:36 said:

    Fantastic :)

  7. Jeni on 1 July 2009, 16:47 said:

    Brilliant article. Thanks. :)

  8. DrAlligator on 2 July 2009, 02:48 said:

    Why the hell does this article have less feedback than the one before and the one after it when it’s the one absolutely everyone can take knowledge from?

  9. sansafro187 on 2 July 2009, 16:38 said:

    My guess would be that the article feels complete enough that most people reading it don’t have much to add besides saying it’s good.