Have you ever read a book or watched a show or movie and gotten mad at the characters for their choices? I have. I spent a large part of the Harry Potter series mad at Harry because of his illogical and infuriating choices. There were times I just wanted to slap him and say “Get with it Harry! Just do the occulumency! Don’t go rushing off on your own! Wait for Dumbledore!” But here’s the thing, they were his choices. I get way more angry when a character acts contrary to the way they’ve been presented. If in the sixth or seventh book Harry had suddenly just said “You know what, I’ll just sit back and think about this choice for a minute,” or if Hermione had decided they didn’t need a plan or supplies, people would have been left scratching their heads and wondering what happened.
I’ve been watching the show “Smash” on NBC and, while it started out strong, it’s waning for me. Last night’s episode, for example, had some characters acting in ways I couldn’t picture them acting. I found myself cursing the show writers instead of the characters for their actions, which takes me out of the story.
If you hang out in Q&A sessions enough, you’ll start hearing a lot of the same questions. “I want to write X, but…” and “can my character do Y?” Or you read a lot of work that doesn’t fit what the author is going for. The words are too big or too zany or too snarky, or not snarky enough. The answer is always the same: what would your character do or say in that situation? It’s part of voice but it’s more than that, it’s knowing your character.
I see characters as real people. No, you don’t need to call the folks in white coats to lock me in a padded room. I mean I like to get lost in a story and, just for a little while, pretend I’m reading about real people and events. It’s an escape. When I close the book I don’t believe there is really a school for wizardry hidden in England or anything, but I like to be able to suspend my belief for a while. Real people generally act in manners that are in line with their character. Sure people change and adapt, but you don’t just suddenly have a neat freak throw mud across the floor without a catalyst. If Monica from “Friends” gave up on cooking and quit using coasters, something would be wrong. Yet, for some reason, writers think they can get away with doing this to their characters.
It’s almost like a separate form of deus ex machina (if you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a plot device where a particular item or person turns up at just the right time. On a random note, at the end of the movie “Dodgeball” when the Average Joes receive the treasure chest of money, the label on the front of the chest says “deus ex machina”). It’s something that is too contrived. The writer sticking their hands in the story to make something work. There is a quote by Anton Chekhov that says “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Well, the converse is true too. If someone is going to get shot in act two, you’d better make sure the gun is on the stage in act one. In terms of characterization, for me, it’s having a character act in manner that is convenient for the writer.
I get it. I mentioned this before, but I have a hard time writing illogical choices. I’m a highly logical person, so it’s difficult to step back. But the key is that I’m a logical person, my character might not be. I can’t write it the way I want to, I have to write it the way it is. It’s almost like changing history. Sure, I’d love it if the white settlers hadn’t pushed the Native Americans off their land. If I’m writing a history of that time, though, I can’t change it to how I want things to be. I can’t substitute puppies and kittens and rainbows for lies and battles and blood. You have to write what is.
If Annie Wilkes in “Misery” had all of a sudden started threatening Paul Sheldon with a gun and cussing like a sailor to speed the plot along, the book wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have fit with her whack-a-doodle personality. Love or hate “Twilight” but if Bella had suddenly up and said “You know what, this is all crazy. There are plenty of normal guys who don’t have a deep desire to kill me or turn into canines when angry. Peace out.” people would have thrown the book across the room.
What I’m saying is, be true to your characters. And if they’re going to do something radically out of character, they’d better have a dadgum good reason for it.