Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character!

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

DO YOUR CHARACTERS’ DECISIONS AND ACTIONS SEEM REALISTIC AND AUTHENTIC?

Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values

I see this problem a lot in fiction manuscripts I edit. The author needs something to happen for the sake of the plot they’ve planned out in advance, so they force a supposedly intelligent character to do something contrary to common sense and their best interests, like recklessly putting themselves in danger.

For example, I once edited a book where the highly educated, intelligent heroine rose from her bed in the middle of the night and, without telling her husband where she was going or even leaving a note, drove to a remote warehouse to find some incriminating evidence, knowing the killer was likely to return – which of course he did, and attempted to kill her. It made for an exciting scene, but unfortunately, the otherwise savvy character came off looking like a foolhardy, impulsive airhead. I couldn’t help wondering, why wouldn’t she tell her husband? Better yet, call the police and let them handle it.  Even police, who are trained for these situations, usually get backup.

Moving your characters around like pawns to suit the plot, if it doesn’t make sense for who they are, could have your readers scratching their heads in disbelief or, worse, throwing your book across the room, then writing a scathing one-star review of it.

Don’t force your characters, kicking and screaming, into actions they just wouldn’t do.

Readers won’t suspend their disbelief and bond with the character if they don’t “buy” what the character is doing and why. An engrossing story needs realistic characters dealing with adversity in bold but realistic and plausible ways.

To make a character’s decisions and actions convincing, take care when creating their background, character, abilities, and motivations.

Background, character, and personality

Of course, you don’t want to make your hero or heroine ordinary, timid, or passive, with few daring decisions, because that would make for a ho-hum book most readers wouldn’t bother finishing. But on the other hand, if you’re going to have them perform daredevil feats, be sure to build that into their makeup.

First, get to know your main characters well. Take some time to develop their background, character, and personality. Are they athletic or more cerebral? Risk-takers or cautious? Do they embrace change, enjoy challenge, love to learn new things? Or do they prefer to stay within their comfort zone? To plumb their depths, do some free-form journaling in which they express their strongest desires, fears, hopes, secrets, regrets, and gripes.

Are they physically capable of what you want them to do?

Abilities

If, for a riveting plot, you need your hero to do something heroic, almost superhuman, make sure he has the determination, strength, flexibility, and endurance to do that. Although it’s amazing what people are able to do under duress with the adrenaline flowing, it’s more credible if your character is already at least somewhat fit. Does he work out a lot to maintain muscle mass, agility, and endurance? How? Also, he’ll need to be intelligent, skilled, and resourceful.

If he needs special skills, show earlier on that he possesses them and how it all makes sense, given his overall makeup. In one novel I edited, the sedentary, slightly overweight, middle-aged protagonist fought off a strong attacker with quick, expert martial arts moves. This was an “Oh, come on!” moment, given his lifestyle, age, and paunch.

In The Hunger Games, we learn early on that Katniss is an expert at archery, which is a huge factor in her survival later. A nerdy banker probably doesn’t do kickboxing on the side, so you may need to make him less desk-bound and more athletic for it to work. Or give him another profession.

If you’re writing fantasy, of course you have more leeway with unusual characters and situations, but if you’re writing a realistic genre, with no supernatural or paranormal elements, make sure the character’s actions are realistic and make sense.

Motivations

Is your hero sufficiently motivated to put his life on the line? Do those motivations fit with his belief system, background, and immediate needs? If you want or need a character to do something dangerous, go back and give him some burning reasons for choosing that course of action.

Perhaps he finds himself in a life-and-death situation for himself or someone he loves, or innocent people are in grave danger. His love, concern, and determination will make him more selfless and daring, bringing out courage he never knew he had.

As Steven James advises in Story Trumps Structure, as you’re writing your story, ask yourself , “What would this character naturally do in this situation? Is he properly motivated to take this action?”

Causality

Be sure your narrative is also shaped by the logic of cause and effect. For your story to be believable, character decisions and reactions need to plausibly follow the original stimulus or actions. If your character overreacts or underreacts to what has just happened, they won’t seem “in character” or real.

Be sure every decision and action makes sense with what preceded it. As James suggests, as you go along, continually ask yourself, “What would naturally happen next?”

So don’t force your characters to act in uncharacteristic ways because your plot needs them to. Readers will pick up on that. Rather than insisting certain events or actions happen as you had planned, instead allow the natural sequence of events and logical reactions to shape your plotline.

Go through your story to make sure your characters are acting and reacting in ways that are authentic to who they are and where they’ve come from, and that they’re sufficiently motivated to take risks. Also, do their reactions fit with the stimulus? Is that a logical response to what happened?

Ask yourself, as you’re writing, “Is there a way to accomplish this that fits with the character’s values and personality?” If not, I suggest you either change the plot (have them make a different decision and rewrite where that leads them) or go back and change some of the character’s basic attributes, values, and skills. Or add in incidents in their past that have shaped them in ways that will justify their current actions.

That way your plot will flow seamlessly and your characters will seem real. There will be no bumps, no hiccups where readers will be suddenly jolted out of the story.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes,

“…get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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37 thoughts on “Make Sure Your Characters Act in Character!

    • That’s great, Joe. Email me at info(at)JodieRenner(dot)com to receive an ARC. And let me know whether you’d like it in mobi for your Kindle or PDF. Or I can try to turn it into an ePub file for other e-readers and iPad.

  1. Jodie, good morning. Great post!

    Great summary of those factors we plotters need to be reminded of. These are certainly things I continue to struggle with. I’ve read James’ STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE and I’ve tried writing “organically.” But I’ve come full circle from plotting to pantsing and back to plotting again. James Scott Bell’s SUPER STRUCTURE and WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE were very helpful in this discussion. And I find I am more comfortable setting out on a journey if I know where I’m going.

    I am currently rereading James Frey’s HOW TO WRITE A D**N GOOD (NOVEL, THRILLER, MYSTERY). His ‘step sheets’ are basically detailed synopses with each scene being summarized as a separate entity, allowing the author to think in detail about the scene without writing it. It then becomes easy to move scenes around. A lot easier to change scenes as the writer sees problems with plausibility and causality. A more efficient way to play with the plot. And for me, a good compromise between just an outline, or writing completely organically.

    Sorry, I digress. Thanks for a great post!

    • So glad to hear you’ve found a method that works for you, Steve! I’ve read all of those writing craft books you mention above, and they’re all excellent, in different ways. The trick is to find a method that works for your personality and creative/work/writing style.

  2. I’m new to the killzone, but am already loving it and finding so much of value. I’d love to receive and review a copy of your new book, and thanks for the great post.

    • So glad to hear you like our blog, Joshua! If you do a search on various topics, there are lots of real gems here! Email me at info(at)JodieRenner(dot)com for your ARC of Captivate Your Readers. PDF or mobi for your Kindle?

  3. The worst example of a character suddenly behaving both out of character and illogically is in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. When Lisbeth sneaks into Martin’s dungeon to save Mikael, Martin, who’s coldly and methodically killed dozens of victims, totally panics and RUNS AWAY from a girl armed with a golf club. Now, he’s in his fortress, with guns and other weapons all over the place, but he decides to abandon it and try to escape in his Volvo. Okay.

    And it gets worse! Lisbeth pursues Martin on her little motorbike. As they race down the mountain, with the plucky Lisbeth hot on his trail, all Martin has to do is tap the brakes, and Lisbeth would squish against the rear of his Volvo (which I think is Swedish for “Tank for Civilian Use.”) But no, instead our previously calculating and unflappable villain loses control of his car and ends in a fiery wreck.

    And millions found this believable?

    • Mike,
      There was a lot in that movie (and book for that matter) that strained credibility. But to be fair, in the book, Lizbeth DID have a gun instead of just a five iron. And Martin purposely drives head-on into the truck, so readers are supposed to assume he was so guilty about his past that he committed suicide? (meh…) I didn’t find either ending satisfying. But Salander was a good character..

    • Thanks for the great contributions, Mike! I found the beginning of that book so hard to get into that I gave up at around page 20 or 30. (Don’t tell anybody, but all I could think of was, this book needs a good edit.) 😉

  4. Pingback: Why would a character do that? | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  5. Oh heaven’s yes. Characters that can suddenly shoot like Annie Oakley when the chips are down with no foreshadowing at all that they have firearms experience (I mean, how hard can it be, point and shoot, right?) Characters that can suddenly drive like Jeff Gordon (how hard can it be, right?) And the classic TSTL (too stupid to live) move without even a token, “You know this is stupid, right?” “Yeah, but the alternative is even worse.” in the dialogue.

    Almost as bad is the Mary Sue that comes pre-loaded with every Amazon skill known to mankind (she is a doctor who practices mixed-martial arts in between being a SWAT sharp-shooter reservist on the weekends,) all within the first few pages. Oh yeah, she’s totally hot as well, but with a broken heart that makes her doubt her ability to love again.

    Look forward to the new book! Terri

    • “Almost as bad is the Mary Sue that comes pre-loaded with every Amazon skill known to mankind (she is a doctor who practices mixed-martial arts in between being a SWAT sharp-shooter reservist on the weekends,)”

      Now THAT’S funny!

  6. Thanks for the writing suggestions!! I enjoy all your advice, Jodie. I agree with making your characters do logical actions. I hate reading a suspense book and a character does something that makes me scratch my head. I’m become frustrated and don’t know if I want to finish the book.

    I would love to read and review your new ebook, Captivate your Readers.

    • Glad you find my advice here on TKZ useful, Kelly. And that really bugs me when that happens, too.

      Please contact me at info(at)JodieRenner(dot)com so I can send you an ARC of Captivate Your Readers.

  7. I’ve been struggling with character; my tendency to move characters around like chess pieces results in some very manipulated scenes.

    In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Ms. Baxter helps out Tom Barrow, who has been pretty cruel to her. I’m not sure if it’s in or out of character (I don’t really get the Baxter character), but I definitely didn’t understand her motivation.

    I’d love an ARC of your new book in Kindle.

    • Shizuka, the fact that you recognize what you’re doing puts you way ahead of a lot of authors! Keep asking yourself, “What would this character actually do in this situation?” Good luck working it out!

  8. Ugh, yeah, I think the TV tropes term for that is “passing them the idiot ball”. When a character who has previously been smart does something massively stupid. I’ve been working on a story that would have been easier had my heroine been stupid. But she’s not, so I had to use my villains in creative ways to move the plot forward. (She knows her monster tropes, and would never walk into the spooky house unarmed, in a manner of speaking.) I’ve given characters idiot balls before–and suffered for it when crit partners called me out on it. But man, the stories got better for it,

    • Yes, it’s so much more of a challenge to create an exciting plot while still staying true to what your smart, savvy character would actually do in that situation!

      If crit partners call you out on it, readers would notice it too, and could write some scathing reviews, so it’s best not to let these situations slip past.

      I’m sure the author of the manuscript I’m editing now is not happy about my comments that her intelligent, street-smart heroine just wouldn’t willfully put herself in such danger — repeatedly! Editors, beta readers, and critique partners are your first readers, so as you know, it’s a good idea to seriously consider their suggestions.

  9. Hi Jodi:
    Suzi Burke March here.
    Thanks so much for bringing this issue to the forefront. I find I have to really watch myself as I an in my 60’s and being post menopausal, I cannot have my 20 year old character pop off her mouth like I would, LOL.
    I would enjoy reading your book. I am very good at giving reviews that are actually reviewing the book. The what, the why and the rating.
    Thank you.

  10. This is a great post. I would love to receive a copy of your new book in Kindle.
    This post has been very helpful as a reminder about character development. In my first book, in final production stages now, I had to go back and add those bits of background to lend plausibility. For the second book, I’m hoping to keep the characteristics in mind as I go along so I don’t have to fix as many in the rewrite.

    • Thanks for your comments, Julie. Yes, it’s all about going back and showing the hero or heroine taking karate lessons or learning to pilot a small plane or whatever, so when those skills are needed they’ll seem plausible. Or of course, writing any special skills in as you go along.

      Good luck with your W.I.P.! 🙂

  11. Great post Jodie and yes, nothing irritates me more then when a character suddenly morphs into someone else (often with superhuman powers) right in the middle of the book (and for no apparent reason except, as you say, to move the plot a along). I must admit I can’t watch Downton Abbey now because of the character issues – and the all too stupid plot contrivances. Characters need to grow and change but they cannot suddenly behave like imbeciles or trust other characters that have clearly shafted them a million times before!

    • So true, Clare! I find that stuff really irritating, too. Sometimes I even see “What the–?! Come on!” moments in bestsellers. But that’s a topic for another post… 🙂

  12. When reading, I find it easy to put the book down and think about something that seemed weird. Often, that will be the end of right there. On the other hand, with a movie you have that WTF moment, but the show keeps on rolling to the next thing. So it’s easy to go “meh” and let it keep going.

    Riding a motorcycle across a roof line was and end-of-story moment for Jason Borne. Like, oh please!

    • That’s a very good point you make about movies or TV shows just rolling along, so we tend to keep watching anyway, whereas it’s really easy to slip out of the fictive dream in a book and lose faith in an author and just give up on that story and find another.

      And how did they even get a stunt man to ride a motorcycle along a roof line? That’s a really tough one to believe!

  13. I enjoyed the post and I’d love to receive a copy of your book.

    Your description of the kickboxing banker reminded me of an extremely straight-laced civic engineer I knew. In his spare time, he liked to go hang gliding. At first it seemed like an odd choice, but later it made sense to me. This was a good outlet for him since it was so far removed from his day-to-day life. That said, if I decided to use someone like him in fiction, I’m not sure if he’d be believable. I hope so, because the contrast is something I find fascinating.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. Which book would you like? Fire up Your Fiction (no strings attached), or Captivate Your Readers in exchange for a review?

      And thanks for the reminder that seemingly straight-laced people can have daring pastimes on the side. I think if you built that into his character development right from the start, it would make sense.

  14. Thank you for the post, Jodie. Although I have read this information as beta reader of your new book, I re-discovered again many points valuable for my writing. This is what I liked about your book, it is a great resource, to which writers can come back again and again and find a lot of valuable information. You can’t keep all of that ready in mind while writing, some of the inconsistencies can sneak into writing without noticing. The list above and many other parts in your book provide great checklists and examination platform for the story to shine.
    I would like to enter the competition for your book Fire Up Your Fiction. I bought its earlier version some time: Style that Sizzles and would like to read the latest version of it.
    Wishing you success with your new book and raising thumbs up for it (I have already recommended it to a writer friend and sent her the link with the pre-order. 🙂 )

    • Thanks so much for your encouraging words about my upcoming book, Victoria! I’m so glad you found it helpful for your own writing, and even recommended it! I’ll gift you an e-copy of Fire up Your Fiction today. 🙂

  15. I found your post very exciting and helpful.

    I’d really love to receive an ARC for CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS for a honest review, if you don’t mind that the review will be in German. Of course, you’d receive a summary of my review in English as well.

  16. I read a passage in critique group today that made me comment on a character. The protagonist agreed too readily to a suggestion to join a house party. I felt she needed more convincing. This is one instance of where a character’s actions (in my opinion) needed to be better motivated, otherwise they weren’t consistent with her logical attitude.

  17. Pingback: Characterization | Nancy Faltermeier

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