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Good characters behaving badly?

A lot of people have their shorts in a bunch over the final book of "that big vampire saga", which was released a couple of weeks ago. A friend of mine was kind (read: evil) enough to provide me with a whole pile of links, most of which were comment threads filled with disappointed readers airing their grievances. I won’t go into all the details here, but I will say that some of the most common bones of contention were these: contrived plot, main character acting out of character, and pissing off half the fans by putting the main character with the "wrong guy".

Reading all the comments got me thinking about a number of issues, and one of those issues was this: can a character act "out of character"? On the one hand, the character is created entirely by the writer. The writer decides how they speak, how they act, what they wear, the hobbies they have, the causes they support, etc. They can easily decide to have the character act differently than in the past. But is that necessarily acting out of character? People do unexpected things. They go through phases where they act in ways they haven’t previously. Good children become rebellious teenagers. Happy people can become depressed. Nasty people can have a change of heart. So if a character starts doing things a reader doesn’t expect, is it really a case of being out of character? Or is it just art imitating life?

What do you guys think? Can a character be out of character? Or is it just people complaining because the story didn’t go the way they wanted it to?

5 Responses Subscribe to comments

  1. Jess

    I absolutely think this can and does happen. The thing is, real people can do that, but reality has no place in fiction, in this regard. It’s like no one saying “goodbye” on the phone when you’re watching TV. We cut the unnecessary bits to streamline. The thing is, a character exists in its book and through that has an established canon. If you, the author, do something that does not seem to proceed from that canon, it can be taken “OOC”, even though you are the ultimate authority on the character and can justify it, even with real-world examples. Because at this point, readers have gotten hold of that canon, and it has become multi-dimensional. The character is no longer yours. I forget which craft book I read, I believe it was Stephen King, said that that writing a novel is like being telapathic because you hold something in your mind, and when a reader reads your book, they then hold it in theirs. The problem is the image may be slightly distorted. The character takes on an added facet – interpretation! And that is why it is so important to look at where you have been with your character and to build squarely within the confines of WHO that character is – and why it is so important to KNOW the character fully before making the character available to interpretation. It’s the contract with the reader that is in dispute here, not the OOC or the contrived plot. The author gives the work up for that extra dimension, that interpretation, and that cements the canon. Indeed, that is how something becomes canon. Without that facet, the character is open to change, etc, how you would like, but once it is available, the possibilities limit. Does that make sense? Ultimately, it’s the contract with the reader that allows a character to be OOC – you have given them the character as X in the canon of previously published work – this could even be, say, the first 50 pages of the novel, so that when they do something in book 4 or on page 51 that does not naturally proceed from the body of work, you’re breaking the contract. Now “naturally proceeding” can be fluid, but if the word “contrived” is added, you probably want to re-examine what you’ve done.

    Aug 20, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  2. Shayne

    I would agree with you in that, when readers start throwing around the word contrived, you’ve probably done something wrong. But I don’t think that’s because reality doesn’t have a place in characterization.

    I’d argue that a character’s actions and reactions, no matter how strange or “out of character” they may be, are perfectly acceptable, as long as they proceed from a psychologically sound premise. For example, if your pacifist Quaker protagonist whips out a pistol and pumps the antagonist full of holes, that would probably be deemed out of character. But if you give sufficient motivation, and spend enough time breaking down your protag’s belief system and then building him back up again, the same thing can be well within the realm of believability.

    I think what it really boils down to is putting the work in. As long as the choices you make are made because they serve the story – King is big on serving the story – and you show the steps of growth or regression your protag takes, you won’t violate your contract with the reader. I’ve read (or viewed) a lot of poor endings – weak in logic or facts, lazy, etc. – that I was okay with, because relatively speaking, they fit the rest of the story, even if they were a bit disappointing. But I’ve found the only time an ending really bit my butt was when that ending seemed motivated by the playground mentality of “it’s my story and I’ll do what I want with it”. That, to me, is a violation of the contract. The last episode of Xena was like that for me. To a lesser degree so were the last episodes of Forever Knight and Quantum Leap.

    And since we’re on the topic of contracts with the reader, if you had to write yours down, what would it be?

    Aug 20, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  3. Iven

    Thanks. Good news. I’ll become your regular reader.

    Aug 25, 2008 @ 3:24 am

  4. Shayne

    Hey, Iven. Thanks for dropping by my blog. It’s always nice to see new people.

    Aug 25, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  5. Rhonda

    Keep up the good work.

    Oct 29, 2008 @ 12:52 pm