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)

Exercises in Character, pt.2, “A Quirk in Time”

One thing that the writer of fiction needs to be able to do on occasion is move forward through time in a fairly quick manner. That is, the writer needs to be able to “fast-forward” the narrative without losing the reader. One way to do this is to select a specific quirk about a character—a physical anomaly, for example, or a nervous tick, or even one of the “small humiliations” that you developed in Exercise One—and to make that quirk the axis around which a series of quick vignettes rotates. This strategy can be effective in several ways:

  • Focus: When you want to carry your reader across a couple of decades, it’s very easy to get sidetracked with all of the different incidents that happen to a character over that period of time. Although this may be fine in some cases, there are also times when you want to give the character just a brief bit of back story before getting on with the rest of the novel. Using a single quirk as an anchor can give you the focus you need to stop yourself from wandering too far afield.
  • Character Development: Another great thing about giving the character a quirk or a handicap is that you get to show the reader how your character deals with the quirk or compensates for the handicap in different situations. This, in turn, gives your reader a better sense of who the character is. It can also allow your reader to see your character grow over time. Maybe she hides the fact that one leg is shorter than the other as a teen by staying seated all the time, but later, as she comes into her own as an adult, she stops caring so much about what other people think and becomes a marathon runner or someone who loves to dance.
  • Handle: Once you’ve established the quirk, you’ve also given your character a handle, something readers can readily identify. My seventh grade teacher would call this synecdoche—part for the whole. But that “part” is so much more than a physical part, because it also carries a lot of emotional weight or baggage as well, especially if the quirk is intimately tied into the character’s development.

Activity: First, identify a quirk for one of your characters. It can be physical, psychological, or social. Next take your reader through several years or several decades of your character’s life, but be sure to keep the focus on the quirk and your character’s relationship with it. How does it hold the character back? How does the character overcome it? How does it help to flesh out the character?

Towards the end of the exercise, slow things down a bit by giving the reader a scene from the present tense of your novel or short story. Think about the ways in which the quirk has led the character to become who she is today, and use the quirk as your entrée into the larger narrative of the piece. If you want it to remain prominent, that’s fine, but the quirk can also fade very rapidly into the background. The idea is to use it as a transition into your novel’s main action, so it can figure as largely or marginally into the main action as you wish.

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 1)

(Click here for Exercises in Character, pt. 3)