When characters act out

Posted: November 13, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , ,
It might not look like much to you, but to me this is as terrifying as any horror film

It might not look like much to you, but to me this is as terrifying as any horror film

I hate heights, even imaginary ones. But the first time I came to visit Laura in Manchester we rode a huge wheel that lets you see the city from above – like the London Eye, but not in London.* It was something I would never normally do, but Laura suggested it and I didn’t want to say no to the woman I’d been halfway in love with on and off for years, so I said yes. The view was cool, and though my heart was in my stomach the whole time I managed not to completely freak out. The joy of spending time with Laura saw me through it.

I mention this because it’s the sort of moment that says something about my character, and that can be used to say something about characters in fiction. By climbing onto that wheel I was acting completely out of character, but it reflected something deeper about my priorities, which is to say that Laura was very high among them.

When writing characters, consistency is important. But occasional moments when the character acts out of character can also be a powerful tool, the jolt of unexpected behaviour adding tension and focusing the readers’ attention. If used badly or over-used it makes a mess, but if used well it’s a source of drama. At its crudest use, think of all those TV episodes where characters spend the time trying to work out why someone else is acting strangely – it’s not subtle, but it can drive a whole episode’s plot.

I struggled to think of good literary examples of this off the top of my head, but I know they’re out there, so can anyone recommend some?


* Or an eye for that matter. And now I’m thinking about how creepy it would be if the London Eye really was an eye, a hundred feet tall and staring down Sauron-like upon the capital.


* * *

NaNoWriMo update:

I have my work back under control, at least a bit. That makes me less stressed. It hasn’t given me the energy to catch up on the word count I lost, but it has let me get back on top of the daily writing. Fingers crossed for catching up later.

  1. Nathan. says:

    “how creepy it would be if the London Eye really was an eye, a hundred feet tall and staring down Sauron-like upon the capital.” You’re thinking of The Shard http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m701hl8V9Y1qefk0po1_500.jpg

  2. everwalker says:

    It’s not a VERY literary example, but Bigby Wolf from the Vertigo Fables acts out of character around Snow White for very similar reasons to your own example. The subtlety in how it’s done is why it’s one of my favourite modern love stories.

  3. Sue Archer says:

    Nice to meet someone else who is terrified of ferris wheels! For some reason The Scarlet Pimpernel popped into my head – a character who everyone thought they knew, but had no idea who he really was – and flashes of the real man come out once in a while, which is a lot of fun.

  4. I’d say Katniss in the Hunger Games does a few things that vastly go against her personality. (I’m thinking specifically of the first book where she sings, because she doesn’t normally sing for other people.) To me, what makes these moments work is that the author points out “And this was odd because…” Without that nod, I wonder if the author just goofed up, but if they draw attention to it, I know it’s a plot device, and probably going to be significant.

    • Once again demonstrating just how beautifully written the Hunger Games is. And I think Collins gets the balance just right in not ignoring that it’s a change in behaviour but not being too unsubtle in mentioning it either.

  5. glenatron says:

    Whilst reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels you have quite a few times where you wonder why Lymond is being such a jerk to people and when the explanation comes it makes everything fall into place entirely satisfyingly, although sometimes it doesn’t happen until a book or two later on. One of the things that makes them such great reading. It also happens to a degree in her Niccolo series, but that is a little different because Nicolas is so far ahead of you as a reader that it doesn’t seem as out of character until you hit the last epic twist ( after eight books ) and suddenly so much that happened before falls into place.

    It’s certainly interesting and powerful – but very difficult, I think – to have twists driven by character rather than by events or obvious actions. A very interesting area.

    • That last point’s an interesting one, and I suspect depends on how you define ‘twist’. I increasingly hold to the idea that plot should be driven by character, even if it’s not always the central character, and on that basis the twists should generally come from character. It helps to make the twists feel more legitimate.

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