Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Don't Let Your Characters Get Out of Character

By Merrill Heath

Few things are more disruptive to your story than when one of your characters, especially the main character, slips "out of character." By that I mean when they do something or say something or react in a way that they wouldn't based on what we know about them. Your reader should never stop and say, "Wait a minute. He wouldn't do that." It not only breaks up the flow of the story but it makes your character less credible. Readers like consistency and dependability and, to a degree, even predictability. It's disruptive when your characters don't act as they're supposed to.

This seems really basic, the kind of thing everyone should know, but it happens all the time. You see this in best-selling novels by experienced authors as well as in first novels by novice writers. Typically this occurs when the writer has an idea for a great scene or some really catchy dialog that they just have to put in their novel. Occasionally it happens when authors get on their soapbox about something that's important to them personally.

Sometimes it's simply a result of undisciplined writing. And sometimes it happens because the writer doesn't know his character as well as he should (as I mentioned in a previous article). But regardless of the reason, and no matter how good the scene may be, if your character wouldn't do it or say it, then don't make them. Let another character do it, find another way to get the point across, or perhaps even leave it out entirely.

In Consequences there were a couple of times where the main character, Trevor Washington, said things he wouldn't say. Trevor was an FBI agent investigating a couple of complex murders. I wanted to make sure the reader understood that he hadn't missed something important. So in a couple of situations he told the people he was interviewing that he knew they were lying. But, in reality, he wouldn't do it.

He wouldn't show his hand like that, especially not to a suspect. As much as I wanted to see Trevor put the suspect in his place it was out of character. So I took it out - and one of the scenes was really good, too. I hated to cut it but I had to. Then I had to come up with a different way to get the original point across to the reader. What I came up with worked just fine and it didn't allow my main character to get out of character.

Merrill Heath is an author who has a strong desire to "pay it forward" by helping other authors improve their craft. For more information on his novels and current projects visit his blog at: http://merrillheath.wordpress.com

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