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

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Siegmar Sondermann says

    Hi,

    most recently a test reader told me that my protagonist at one point of the story acted too abruptly.
    As I tend to tell my stories hastily, this happens once in a while.
    To avoid it, I try to bear in mind to build up emotional outbursts of my characters over time instead of letting them happen without warning.
    Sometimes I succeed.

  2. Hi, great post! I’ve always sort of known those 6 problems (and I’m sure most authors have an instinct for this type of thing), but it really helps that you wrote them down into concise and separate points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most authors’ instincts are excellent. But without conscious knowledge, we sometimes have a difficult time interpreting what those instincts are trying to tell us.

  3. I think everyone hates recognizing this in others works, and yet we all do it ourselves at some point. One of the main problems I had with the novel that I’m temporarily abandoning was that I often stilted my characters actions and I didn’t know enough (or really anything) about them until I started writing them. Although it was quite interesting to discover them as I wrote, it was still troublesome in the long run just like how I didn’t plan the story very well. As much as I want to work on another project, I’m glad that I’m slowing down and doing story/character planning and research first.

    • Siegmar Sondermann says

      Yep.
      Planning, I am slowly coming to realize, is the most important thing in writing.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        I’ll second that. We can save ourselves so much trouble int he long run by applying a little conscious thought upfront.

      • Siegmar Sondermann says

        On second thoughts it all boils down to knowing thyself and acting accordingly.
        Some writers need planning, plotting, researching, while others go by instinct and do well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          True enough. Most of us can save ourselves a lot of trouble by planning ahead, but for others the planning can be more trouble than it’s worth, if it stilts their creativity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Who the character is, at his deepest self, is ultimately what the story is about – no matter how plot driven it is. If we don’t understand what kind of plot this character is going to drive, we’ll often end up with two halves of a whole that simply don’t fit together.

      • Alicia, I find it funny that the change with your protagonist doesn’t sound too unbelievable even though I haven’t read it. I could see it being a problem if the change isn’t developed, but otherwise I don’t think that route with your character necessarily sounds bad from a conception stand point.

        And yes Siegmar, don’t be afraid to wing it if that’s what you’re made to do v.s. planning and researching. I’m not bad at throwing stories out and make them up as I go, I just feel it’s been less then beneficial for me in the long run. If you’re a prolific genius like Ray Bradbury or Stephen King that’s great too.

        And thanks for your responses to my comment earlier Katie!

      • That’s a very deep thought on the connection between plot and character Katie. Thanks for directing me to this article. I don’t know if I have all of the answer yet but this definitely provoked my thinking which is always z good thing.

  4. Nice post. I love you blog and find it super helpful. Keep it up! 🙂

  5. This is a terrific post. I think it’s really hard to approach characters and their motivations. Unless we know them inside and out, it can be difficult to figure out what they really want and why they act a certain way. If we have enough of an awareness, we shouldn’t have a problem!

    Great post, great blog.

    Jenny
    http://www.blotsandplots.com

  6. Lajos Egri talks about the stages of character progression. “No honest man will becomes a thief overnight; no thief will become an honest man in the same period of time.”

    Perhaps the film The Bicycle Thieves is a good example of that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good analogy. Evolution takes time. That’s why we talk about a character *arc.* It’s a progression, not an immediate occurrence.

  7. Thanks for the post! Loved it! And yes. All you need to have is a good evolution and all is justified. But something happened to me once with one of my betas: i felt like she just had her own idea of eho my character shall be because everything she did something and it was the sane thing every time she said she was ooc. What do you think?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Betas are so valuable, and most of the time we’re wise to take what they say to heart. But even those who are knowledgeable writers in their own right aren’t all-knowing. At the end of the day, we’re the only ones who can ultimately say what’s right or wrong for our stories. If whatever a beta reader is saying just isn’t stacking up against your vision for your story, then I would go with your vision, every time.

  8. This is good stuff. Of course, no one expects characters to stay the same forever and never change or do anything unpredictable (who wants to read a predictable book?). But the change needs to be well-motivated (causal realism), not too abrupt, and make sense within the plot. Probably some early, subtle hints that the character could go in that direction if pushed enough are also helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. Framing techniques that allow us to show a character in a situation or attitude that, when escalated, could logically lead to the eventual outcome not only help prevent suspension of disbelief, they also allow us to build more cohesive plots.

  9. In one story I wrote, the main character seemed excited at the beginning when she found out she was psychic, but then in the middle, she suddenly became scared of it. I didn’t realize I’d changed my character until I went back and read through it again!

  10. I read a YA novel recently in which the protagonist went from disliking/distrusting the supportive character to wanting to hold him and kiss him within the flip of a page. As a reader, it was a bit frustrating…like the narrator was compromising the protagonist’s strong-willed personality in a hurried attempt to get to the juicy stuff. I’m glad you puts words to this phenomenon, along with warning signs to watch out for. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out in my own MS for signs that my MC is acting outside of her nature.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Rom-coms can often be guilty of this. They need the conflict between the leads in the beginning, but that conflict has to *realistically* evolve into affection.

  11. I think the easiest place to slip into let our characters act out of character is in the romance area. Typically, we start out with the two people NOT liking each other – or at least one of them not liking the other – and in our hurry to let them get together, we have one or both characters do something that doesn’t match what we’ve said their feelings are. WE like both of them, so we accidentally let our feelings get in the way, and write that the guy who said he hates cats starts being attracted to the girl who runs a cat rescue shelter, without giving a good reason for his change of heart. Just because WE like the girl (and cats) doesn’t mean HE automatically is going to change just because of a pretty face. We have to win him over, like our readers.

    • Totally agree. I like a good rom-com as well as the next person, but they’re often the victims of poor character motivation. In an effort to keep the conflict going right up until the end, authors often end up with either fake conflict or fake love.

      • That’s a good point, about fake conflict. It’s one of my pet peeves when authors just seem to be creating dislike between characters just for the sake of keeping two people apart when we know they would have fallen for each other chapters ago if the author would just let them!

  12. Kay Anderson says

    Really like this post! 🙂 So important to make sure your characters stay the same, unless of course they have character arcs and develops while striving to accomplish some kind of goals.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a definite difference between a character staying the same and a character realistically evolving. Most stories are going to be better off for a little realistic evolution.

  13. Alicia, I find it funny that the change with your protagonist doesn’t sound too unbelievable even though I haven’t read it. I could see it being a problem if the change isn’t developed, but otherwise I don’t think that route with your character necessarily sounds bad from a conception stand point.

    And yes Siegmar, don’t be afraid to wing it if that’s what you’re made to do v.s. planning and researching. I’m not bad at throwing stories out and make them up as I go, I just feel it’s been less then beneficial for me in the long run. If you’re a prolific genius like Ray Bradbury or Stephen King that’s great too.

    And thanks for your responses to my comment earlier Katie!

    P.S. This is a comment that I accidentally misplaced earlier. Sorry for any confusion.

  14. Siegmar Sondermann says

    Hi P.S.,

    after reading my longest story so far (79 pages) my test reader said:
    “Listen bro, your scenes are fun to read, but your narrative makes me yawn. This is out of balance.”

    Now that I have read so much about plotting on this site lately, I will try K.M.´s structuring method and rewrite the piece.
    There is nothing like a satisfied test reader.

  15. I still remember reading Michael Sullivan’s II book (I love his books!) and there’s a scene where one of his main characters, Royce, is saying something SO out of character, that it bothers me still.

    It’s not always that the character changes in personality. In this case very reserved, silent and serious character (who is and was my favorite one of the series) all of the sudden bursts out cheerfully something like “oh look, Hardian – FOOD!” then that did NOT in every possible way sound like that silent-reserved-and-smarter-than-everybody-else character. That scene would have suited for someone a lot more cheerful, like his partner!

    It has been bothering me for years now and the issue with this was that – the character went BACK to being “itself” later. The II book was where this character seemed to say (not do, but say) things that did not seem logical coming out of that character. I understand that he needed Royce to say these lines in order to keep the plot running but… he could have easily put those exact words into someone else’s mouth and it would have sounded a lot more logical.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always wonder what the author’s response would be to us when we, as readers, object to their characters doing something out of character. It would be interesting to hear the logic behind the lapse.

  16. Yep. I told me! :shakes head at self:

    “Dowse and Bleed” is the first story I had EVER written in the procedural genre and in the slow, muddled course of feeling my way along it, I came out with a decent story, but that had issues. To quote myself from the time:

    1. I didn’t figure out what was going on inside Rachelle until the last two scenes of the story and then, not much.
    2. I didn’t know why I was telling this story and I don’t imagine a reader knew why it mattered either.
    3. Rachelle only figured things out after I did, which made her look like she didn’t know prep, the initial debriefing, or how to do her work very well.
    4. …
    6. The ending came out of nowhere even though I knew it grew from all that stuff Rachelle was iceberging.

    My solution was to rewrite the then short story completely, which is how I ended up with a novelette.

    • I love that you’re writing notes to yourself about what’s wrong with your story. Something I often do when trying to organize my thoughts about how to fix a story is to write a “bad review,” in which I pretend I’m an objective reviewer and write down everything that doesn’t work or even that I just *think* might not work.

  17. Siegmar, it looks like you’ve had trouble figuring out plotting v.s. pantsing for awhile, but now it looks like you’re on the way to finding the right balance for you. I think it takes awhile for all writers to develop the strategy most fit for them (I still don’t have on but I’ll get there). And Katie, I find your idea of writing a bad review interesting. I know I’ve read the other way around before (whether it was you or a different site I’m not too sure) but either way I think they are both ideas that could be beneficial, even if a bit contrasting.

  18. Siegmar Sondermann says

    “It´s a damn long journey …”.
    He sipped at his Daiquiri.
    “… but it´s worth the while.”

  19. It’s been said that, at the root of every plot of every piece of fiction from WAR AND PEACE to the sitcom you saw last night is one underlying question and it is this: Who am I?

    Characters changing character is certainly a more nuanced and complicated one than most readers, and authors, realize. But our individual characters change whether we know it or not or whether or not we want them to. Usually, this is a process that takes decades in the course of normal human psychological evolution. But we don’t have decades to read or write a book.

    This is why in some forms of fiction, especially thrillers or suspense novels in which the protagonist undergoes some radical change after a traumatic event, change is absolutely necessary and NOT delineating it can also damage Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” In my novel TATTERDEMALION, for instance, Scott Carson does an almost complete 180 in just two months in 1888 Whitechapel. Two months may sound like a short amount of time but Carson’s radicalization process is occasioned by some very traumatic events and the first changes sometimes sneak up on him as the Ripper investigation heats up. Buffalo Bill even warns him early in the book, in a bit of foreshadowing, that he fears Carson, a mere lad of 21 and still very much an academic, may become a hardened killer like his old friend Wild Bill Hickok. Which, if course, he does. But then again, I put Carson through the wringer like few novelists have the heart to do to their characters.

    The important thing to remember, especially if you’re writing in first person, is that the character has to be aware that s/he is changing and a bit of internal dialogue/editorializing may be in order to show the reader they’re aware of these changes in their character. If nothing else, that gives the change an element of reality as our characters are sometimes changed on a dime due to traumatic events.

  20. In one story I actively sought to make one of my characters act ‘out of character’ in that a career military, straight up all out ‘good guy’ was to go on a murderous rampage with an axe, killing one of the main characters.
    I researched brain tumors and all manner of mental illnesses as possible explanations, but none really seemed convincing. I looked into PTSD, but although the guy had just successfully diffused his first bomb in very tense circumstances, it didn’t feel quite right as his trigger.
    Then I discovered that mercury poisoning causes temporary insanity (hence Mad as a Hatter since they used mercury to stiffen the brims) including paranoia and other perfect symptoms. [Check out Sir Isaac Newton, who suffered two bouts of temporary insanity from doing experiments with mercury in a small, poorly ventilated room. ‘Newton’s Madness’ by Harold L Klawans]
    My research had already shown me that bombs often have mercury tilt switches as part of their mechanisms. Therefore I had only to crack the casing of the bomb during his heroic disarming and voila! Sufficient exposure to allow his uncharacteristic outburst with its tragic consequences. The main character death at the hands of this character was all the more poignant because it came from an unexpected source.
    At least I hope that was the case.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great. Not only do you provide a suitable motive for your character’s personality shift, but you’re also likely to help readers learn something new.

  21. Vayda Smith says

    Great website. Glad I found it. Keep posting stuff to pinterest please.

  22. 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!

  23. 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).

  24. I just did an entire “motivational” edit, to be followed by a “deep POV” edit to make sure my character was driving the story and not my plot.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Helping Writers Become Authors – Is your character acting out of character? […]

  2. […] 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.  […]

  3. […] those who need help with basic story elements, K. M. Weiland offers 5 warning signs your character may be acting out of character and 6 reasons the warning signs may be true. Morgan Mandel advises writers to remember the […]

  4. […] 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 […]

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