Exercises in Character, pt.3, “Out of Character”

As anyone who’s ever read or written fiction knows, characters need to remain relatively consistent. Consistency, after all, is what allows us to get to know people both in real life and on the printed page. At the same time, however, we all probably know people who have done things that we might describe as “out of character.” In other words, they act in ways that aren’t consistent with our expectations. When this happens in real life, we might react with shock or disappointment, but our disbelief can usually be tempered with a simple explanation—usually it’s something along the lines of someone having a bad day or a moment of weakness. When these inconsistencies happen in fiction, however, readers need a slightly stronger explanation. If handled correctly, a lapse in judgment can lend depth to a character.

For this activity, take one of your characters and have that character do something that may at first glance be out of line with who that character is. If it’s a “good guy,” you can have the character do something bad. Conversely, if it’s a “bad guy,” think of a situation in which that character might do something good. (It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be a small gesture.) As you write this piece, ask yourself why the character is doing what she is doing. What has pushed the character to this decision? What kind of internal struggle does the character have to go through in order to do something that is not in line with his or self-image? And how does the character react to this action after completing it? Does she feel guilty? Is she proud of herself? Does she try to justify it? For greater effect, think about a way in which one of the flaws you examined in Exercise One might play into it.

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 2)