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May 14, 2011


Last Friday a friend caught me with a beer. It was a fair cop. He walked right into the pub and saw me sitting with a glass of Kilkenny in front of me.

So what’s so special about that, you ask. Well, I don’t actually drink beer. That’s what I’d always told my friend, and he’d never actually seen me with a beer before. We’d shared many a glass of wine together but never a beer. Well, last Friday after a successful concert in aid of a local school, I felt like a beer. Was it all that Celtic music we had been playing? Was it because we were in an Irish pub? I can’t say. I just felt like a beer, so I had one. And my friend walked in.

Before you begin to wonder whether this is going to turn into a blue ribbon diatribe, let me get to the point of it all. We sometimes do things out of character. Just reflect a little on some of the things you’ve done over the past week. Did you do something you’ve never done before? Did you surprise anyone with something you did? Did you do anything uncharacteristic? In all likelihood, you did. It’s normal, part of every day life. And it’s that which has to be taken into consideration when we write. If our characters are to be real, they will do things out of character at times.

An Open University course I did when I was out of work for a time brought this home to me. It talked about the need to create rounded characters, characters which are not pre-programmed to do the same thing all the time. This is what I try to achieve whenever I start work on a new character.

I’m not one of those who work through questionnaires in a bid to nail my character down before I begin to write. I start out with one or two ideas and then playwrite (not sure that word actually exists but I think you get my jist) around with them. I let them show me who they are and what they’re like. I stick them into different situations and see what comes out. But, and this is important, I always try to keep an eye out for inner contradictions. They’re part and parcel of life.

Often, these are just small things which merely add colour to my character.

The story I wrote at the end of that Open University course featured a young lawyer caught in a quandary. His best friend, a man he trusted implicitly seems to be caught up in some very shady business. The conflict I wanted to create was between this man’s love for the law (the one basic principle of his life) and his belief that his friend would never do what he’s suspected of doing (despite all the evidence). To add colour to this character I had him forget his one guiding principle the moment he got behind the wheel of the car.

Sometimes, however, such contradictions can create genuine conflict and play a major role in your story. In my story Discovery (part of the Chinese Whisperings: Red Book anthology) my character had become a successful business woman. Behind her dark business suits, she exuded confidence and assurance wherever she went. But flung into the heat of the African desert where it’s too hot for her business jacket… You’ll have to read the story to find out more, but suffice to say that it turns out to be a major catalyst in her life.


Pick a short story you’ve read recently or one you know well. Examine the people in the story and note ways in which they behave out of character. What does this bring to (or detract from) the story. Now do the same with one of your own stories.

One final word: it’s important not to overdo this, or else you’ll end up with a patchwork character and a lot of confusion in the reader’s mind. Use real life as your test tube and you should get the balance right.

  1. May 14, 2011 5:45 am

    I love this post, Paul! And now I see what your comment on my post the other day meant!

    I agree completely that people do things out of character and so should characters in our stories. But your last statement, not to overdo it, is critical.

    You “felt like a beer” the other day. Sure, that’s out of character for you, it’s unexpected… but you DO drink alcohol and, I’ll guess, you have had a beer or two in the past — otherwise, how would you have known you “felt like a beer”?

    If, however, you never drank alcohol at all and were, in fact, religiously-opposed to alcohol or, perhaps, allergic to it… then finding you in a pub nursing anything stronger than root beer would be going too far… unless you (er, your character) were intent on harming yourself. Which, I suppose, would add color. But often something this large would be due, at least in part, to outside forces and catalysts to which the character is reacting.

    In any event, I’ll be sitting down with a cup of coffee and some short stories soon to go through the exercise you suggest. And trust me: it won’t be decaf.

  2. May 14, 2011 8:42 am

    Yes, there’s a joy in letting a character act…against character 🙂 Especially in a longer story/novel it can drive home those very attributes that they’re now contradicting.

    And it can only work if the charcter is solidly written, otherwise confusion (or just plain irritation, where the reader believes they’ve invested time in a story only to feel short-changed by a un-signposted shift).

  3. May 14, 2011 8:56 am

    Good reminder, Paul. I like that. I sometimes work so hard to keep my people in character, I forget that’s not the way real people are.

  4. May 14, 2011 9:31 am

    Really good points. I do forget that a lot I think (or more precisely, when they appear to be behaving out of character, there is a ‘point’ to it that is deeper in character than it might appear). It’s nice to have people just be people every now and again.

  5. May 15, 2011 8:58 am

    Tony, you’ve just about summed up my feelings when I read your article. Yes, this must not be overdone, at least not if we are striving for reality.

  6. May 15, 2011 9:21 am

    Hamish, Jacqui and Michah, thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s not always easy when creating a character to give him some inconsistencies. But I do think it’s worth striving for as people really are like that. But I think it’s worth it, because we ourselves often behave like that.

  7. laradunning permalink
    May 15, 2011 10:35 am

    Yes, that is so true. What is the saying? Humans are creatures of habit? But there are days or times when we are completely “out of character.” Thanks for the reminder, it is so imporatant to keep that in mind when writing and developing characters. It also builds up conflict in the story.

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