Out of character moments: Making them believable

Character breaks: when done correctly, they not only help to humanize your character, but can also serve to illustrate the onset of personal growth, which is the essence of any dynamic story. When your darlings stagnate, your story suffers. Plain and simple.

Out of character moments can be appropriate when someone in your story is faced with an unusual circumstance they wouldn’t encounter in their everyday life, be it a death, deception, injury or illness, etc. The event in question need not be negative to prompt your character to break. They may experience love at first sight or overnight fame. No matter the catalyst, character breaks are a tool every author should strive to master and use thoughtfully, circumstances permitting.

Now, you may be tempted to pepper them into your story with wild and reckless abandon. My docile, dovish darling who wouldn’t hurt a fly is going to pile drive her boss! The bad boy of my story is going to adopt two kittens and develop a love of baking! Specifically scones! Whoa there, pal. While out of character moments can be useful in creating interest and dimension, when their execution is careless and poor, they are confusing at best and a complete turnoff for your reader at worst.

More than once, I have heard writers affectionately describe their characters as having “run away with the story” when referencing a break in their pattern of behavior. The problem with giving your characters this level of self-determination and control is that oftentimes the proper protocol for pattern breaks is not observed, thus the event in question feels erratic in all the wrong ways. If you want the break to feel justified and well-written, you must consider exactly why and how it happens.

Circumstances preceding the break

This is your why.

It’s up to you and your imagination to determine exactly what kind of event might make your character break, and this will vary greatly from character to character. No one knows them better than you. Consider, are they mentally unstable? Consistently under a large amount of stress? Who your character is at their core will influence the events that might cause a break. Once their personality and mental health are thoughtfully considered, the severity and nature of the event can be properly determined.

Intensity of the break

This is your how.

The way that you write an out of character moment is just as important as why it is justified in occurring. Judging the intensity of your character’s break requires a thorough understanding of them as the subject.

To help us judge this effectively, let’s consider Sir Isaac Newton’s third law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When a cannon is fired, propulsion drives it backward. The force of the blast is immense, sending the projectile far into the distance, and yet the cannon itself doesn’t move more than a few feet. Why? When you consider the weight of the cannon and the force of friction, the distance traveled makes sense.

Same goes for your character. Are they a naturally strong and mentally sturdy? Used to handling hardship? Or do they perhaps lack a support network and have little to no experience facing adversity? When you appraise the individual as a whole, you can more accurately determine what type of reaction will seem believable to your reader.

 

As much as some writers (myself included) like to romanticize the notion that our characters are truly living, autonomous entities capable of running away with their emotions, it is our responsibility as authors to remain in control of them and the stories in which they operate.

How do you handle character breaks? Are there any hard and fast rules you employ when writing them?

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