Warning Signs! Your Character Is Acting Out of Character

One of the worst criticisms any writer can hear is that his character is acting out of character. This indicates that the writer has failed in one of his most important jobs: creating and maintaining realism in his story world. When a character acts out of character, what this really means is that the writer has failed to sustain the causal believability of his character’s actions. And the result? Readers become distanced from the character, and their suspension of disbelief is, at best, endangered.

But the most frustrating thing about this accusation is that, however easy it may for readers to sling it, it’s ridiculously difficult for writers to identify it. After all, who knows their characters better than we do? If a character is acting out of character, certainly we’d be the first to spot it. So our first inclination can be to snort and think our readers are crazy. Obviously, they just don’t get this character.

But when readers then supply specific examples, we’re often still at a loss. We’re likely to throw up our hands, stomp our feet, and howl, “He’s totally in character! I know my character! I know what he would do! And this is what he would do!”

Sadly, all this throwing, stomping, and howling doesn’t go far in convincing readers that we’re right and they’re wrong. The proof, after all, is in the pudding.

5 Warning Signs Your Character Is Out of Character

The reason out-of-character characters can be so difficult for writers to see (or accept) is that they’re usually the result of our own blind spots. Let’s consider a handful of the warning signs.

1. Your character suddenly changes personality.

2. Your character suddenly changes goals.

3. Your character suddenly changes his behavior toward another important character.

4. Your character experiences significant emotional swings.

5. Your character does something unexpected.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably able to look at that list and identify several instances in your own stories, in which characters have done just that. So what in tarnation am I trying to tell you? That your characters, in your perfectly good story, are acting out of character? The nerve.

Well, maybe that’s what I’m telling you. But more than likely, your characters are just fine the way they are, even with all those sudden changes. The root of the out-of-character problem is a little more complicated than the bare warning signs all by themselves.

6 Reasons the Warning Signs May Be True

Here’s the simple truth about characters acting out of character: The idea that certain people will never behave certain ways is just flat-out untrue. Put any person in the right situation and he will act in ways that even he could never have predicted. The entire story of Jim Sheridan’s Brothers hinges on this idea. The “good” brother goes to war, is captured, and, in his desperation to get back to his wife and daughters, he murders one of his own soldiers. Did he act out of his character (as it was established in the beginning of the story)? Sure. Did it work in the story anyway? Absolutely.

This leads us to the premise that the real problem we’re addressing isn’t the actual act of the character acting out of character. So what is it?

The real problem is lack of causal realism—or, in other words, lack of believably constructed character motive.

Consider our previous list of warning signs. If you can identify any moment in your story that qualifies, look deeper. Ask yourself if any of the following also ring true:

1. The character lacks any obvious or sensible reason for his unusual actions.

2. The character’s reason for his new motive isn’t strong enough.

3. The story fails to explain the character’s motivation.

4. The narrative fails to offer proof the character is evolving into someone who would feasibly perform this new action.

5. The narrative fails to present enough time for the character’s evolution to make sense.

6. The narrative doesn’t share the character’s inner reactions (especially in sequel scenes).

If you’re getting reports that your characters are acting out of character, it may be a sign of a deeper problem in your plot, your character building, or your narrative flow. Identifying which (or all three) are at fault will help you figure out how to create stories and characters that resonate with readers, no matter how many unexpected turns they may take.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever been told one of your characters was acting out of character? What did you do?

warning signs your character is acting out of character

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Oh I am WAY beyond subtlety in character miscalculations. I am not a bad writer in terms of putting things together, but characterization is so difficult. I am working hard at it.
    I just want to say kudos to those who are good at this.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. But, the thing about suddenly changing a character is that something secretive or internal happens, and it’s more like foreshadowing. Like if a character is possessed, or they learned something, or someone changed how they acted towards the character. Sometimes my main character will start acting differently based on what happens in real life around me(all of my characters are based off me and my friends, so if me and a friend have a fight, we won’t be friends in my book).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Not unlike the 100 questions found in Attaching the Flesh: A Character Questionnaire | CW Guild 5 warning signs your character might be acting…out of character? 33 ways to write a stronger character Now let the sharing […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.