Storytelling

Five Tips for Characters That Go Against the Flow

Spock and Data from Star Trek stand next to each other

Spock and Data, the logical outsiders of their respective shows.

Everyone likes characters that go against the status quo, whether that means holding an unpopular belief, having a different worldview, or seeing events differently from the average sentient being. Such characters provide endless storytelling opportunities and fun character interactions. But for these norm-breaking characters to work, storytellers need to write them well. Follow these rules to make your character believable and compelling.

Content notice: Suicide is mentioned as part of a summarized story.

1. Know the Reason

Sophie throwing a bladed weapon from Keeper of Lost Cities. In Keeper of the Lost Cities, Sophie has different views about humans than most elves because she was raised in the human world.

This is the big one. Characters don’t deviate from the status quo without a reason. Your reason can be nearly anything. Maybe their parents taught them morals that are not generally accepted by society. Perhaps they see the good side of a trait otherwise looked down upon by society, or maybe an event in their past made them look at the world differently. In fact, if you want to start your story with the character accepting the status quo but then changing, said event can happen during the story. Basically, anything that gives them a different perspective than the average person* in your world will work.

Without giving your character a reason to be different, it will seem like they go against the status quo just because. The audience will question why it’s just this one character who is acting different, if nothing makes them separate from anyone else. To fix this, you don’t even have to tell the reader the reason. It can be subtly communicated in their thoughts, shown in strange actions, or saved for a big reveal. Just make it feel like all the ways your character is different are connected somehow, that there is a reason behind their differing perspective.

An example of a character being inexplicably different is Speth from All Rights Reserved. Speth lives in a dystopian future where, due to Disney being unwilling to give up the rights to Mickey Mouse,* everything, literally everything, is copyrighted for all of eternity. Speaking, shrugging, hugging – all are copyrighted and therefore cost money, and if the parents die, the kids get saddled with debt. At the beginning of the book, Speth’s friend Beecher commits suicide rather than try to work off his parent’s massive debt.

Speth decides that she won’t say anything ever, thus sidestepping the rule that talking equals money equals debt. This sparks a movement of people going silent, basically kicking off the plot. The problem is, Speth is really similar to everyone around her, something the book takes pains to show. She went to school, had friends, and had parents who died, landing her in the government-care system. Even her friend’s suicide isn’t all that uncommon. The bridge he jumped from literally has ads that plead with people not to jump. So why was she the only one with this idea? The book never explains. It ends up distracting the reader and stretching belief in one fell swoop.

A solid reason will inform how your character is different as much as why they are different. All of the other parts of writing a norm-breaking character stem from this. In addition, having a reason – any reason at all – will mean that your story is better than All Rights Reserved.*

2. Show How It Affects Them

Cover art of the Biologist from the Southern Reach The biologist from the Southern Reach trilogy is extremely antisocial, leading her to embark on a dangerous expedition.

Make sure that characters with different ideas than others are actually different than others. They can demonstrate how in many ways. Their unique experiences could allow them to see a solution that’s counterintuitive to characters around them. Their strong morals could make them shun any rule-breaking in a society of deviants. Or they could just be oblivious to the real world, without reference points for how relationships are supposed to work.* But you can just have fun here. Let your character be as quirky and different from their surrounding world as you want, in any way that makes sense and ties back to the reason for why they go against the flow.

I mean, if you don’t have your character act differently because they are different, then why write a character who is different? Holding deviant morals only becomes interesting if your character’s actions are driven by those morals. Also, the parts of your character that are counter to society are part of your character. They should affect your character on every level – their thoughts and ideas, their way of treating others, their actions.

An example of a character who is different from everyone around them but doesn’t act on it is Claire from Outlander. She time-travels back in time from 1945 to 1745, and therefore she should have different ideas from the people around her. She’s a WWII nurse as well, so that should give her strong beliefs and convictions, right? And maybe said beliefs would be progressive compared to what people thought 200 years before, right??

If you were expecting that, too bad! She agrees with and obeys everyone around her, even when it doesn’t make sense. For just one example, she lets men say that she can’t use a sword even though she should know that she can use a sword easily. Her background should lead her to say so! Yet none of Claire’s beliefs come through, even in her first-person narration. At the end of the book, she asserts herself sort of out of nowhere, but it is just inconsistent at that point.

Following the rules of character-building means having character traits matter. If the character trait is that your character’s ideas goes against the status quo, then at least some of your character’s actions should follow suit. It’s that simple.

3. Make Other Characters Treat Them Differently

A dragon from the cover art of Sorcerer to the Crown In Sorcerer to the Crown, Zachariah is not okay with female mages having to give up their magic to male mages, unlike the white mages around him.

Being different than other people affects your interactions with other people. I know, shocking. But really, if other people in your story can tell that your character is different (which people are pretty good at picking up on), they will treat that person differently. They might try to shorten conversations out of discomfort. Or they could be attracted to your character’s rebelliousness. Or they could gawk at your character for being weird. Or they might be annoyed when your character tries to do something that people look down upon. You get the idea. Their interactions with others will change in lots of little ways.

If being different doesn’t affect the way that your character interacts with others, there are two explanations:

  1. The character was written badly.
  2. The character was written badly.

Seriously. This is true even if it’s just a secret value buried deep down inside where no one can see it.* Being different by the standards of your world will affect the way that your character acts. Those changed actions will affect the way that other characters interact with them. But depicting these interactions doesn’t have to be a pain – just work in some moments of your character being treated differently, and you’re golden.

What happens when no one reacts to how someone is different from those surrounding them? You get the Maquis from Star Trek Voyager. Welcome to a world where two groups of beings with beliefs in complete conflict* can live in the same spaceship and get along just fine. The Starfleet crew believes in peace through diplomacy, while the Maquis are insurgents who use violence to achieve their ends. They are allies born out of necessity, so there should be some juicy scenes when they fight over their differing beliefs, right? Nope, the writers seem to forget that the two groups come from different backgrounds.

The crew of Voyager behaves as one group in their trek across the stars.* They don’t have character-building arguments where they learn to reconcile their views, they don’t run into trouble because the two groups fought over what to do, and they don’t do anything to tell viewers who missed the first episode that they don’t have the same belief system. Viewers know that isn’t how things work. I mean, the current U.S. political climate shows that when people with differing views live in the same nation, they clash repeatedly. It makes no sense for everything to be fine and dandy.

Just make sure that the sentient beings who live in your setting act differently around your status-quo-smashing character(s). Because, y’know, that’s realistic. Your audience will thank you for it.

4. Make It Important to the Story

Cover art from Epic. In Epic, Cindella is a virtual-reality game avatar with all of her points in beauty, opening opportunities that combat-focused avatars cannot access.

Now you’ve made sure that your character has a solid reason for their norm-breaking, that it affects how they act, and also that it affects how other characters treat them. What next? Make sure all of this is important to the plot. “Being important to the plot” is pretty broad: it encompasses everything from your character coming up with new ideas given the same information, to ending up in a bad situation because they held onto their morals, to having different options available because of a special upbringing. But make it important somehow! Also, make it cool.

If everyone accepts the status quo, no real change can happen in your world. If your character can change the world even though they act just like everyone else, then why didn’t anyone change the world before them? The traits that make your character different from those normal people around them should factor into how the plot plays out. Said traits should make it realistic that amazingly cool things are only happening to your character, as a result of your character being special. And if your character’s norm-breaking doesn’t affect the plot in some way, then are they really different?

For instance, Lan from Jade City is different from everyone around him, but it seems that the author never noticed. He is the head of a clan involved in deadly power struggles. Though he’s the leader of a powerful clan, he rejects the toxic masculinity that those around him buy into. For example, he doesn’t punish his ex-girlfriend for rejecting him, even though the men around him encourage him to. This is such a drastic difference that it creates an expectation in the reader – that Lan’s differing values will affect the plot in a meaningful way. But the story takes the easy way out, killing Lan off early. Then it sort of forgets this interesting player existed, moving into a fairly normal story of war.

If you do this, your readers (namely, me) will be disappointed. Introducing an element such as Lan sparks interest. Readers will consider how he could impact the story, and they get pumped up to see how his culture changes as a result of his existence. Once Lan is dead, some readers who were excited about his story might quit the book.

Whenever your character differs from those around them in approach, morals, outlook, or anything else significant, it should matter to the story as a whole. Such notable traits should have consequences for the world and character.

5. Show the Good and the Bad

Mantis from Guardians 2 Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 might have no social skills due to being raised by a genocidal maniac, but at least she understands how said genocidal maniac’s brain works!

Every trait that your character has should help and hurt them, depending on the situation. This is extra important for whatever makes them different from the average person in your world. And there are a myriad of ways to do that. Perhaps their strong morals earn them respect but lose them opportunities to work outside of the law. Perhaps their differing ideas lead to broken friendships but solve problems as well. Perhaps their inexplicable love of triceratops leads their friends and family to think they are weird but allows them to direct harmful emotions into the arms of soft triceratops stuffed animals, making them calmer than most people.*

Too often, characters have “specialness” that is only ever shown as helping them in everything. Or the storyteller looks down on them, offering nothing but terrible consequences for their reasonable opinions. Readers are smarter than that. They know that everything has its pros and cons, and reflecting that in your story will make it more believable.

An example of a character whose author didn’t following this cardinal rule is Elias from Ember in the Ashes. Elias is an elite soldier-in-training.* Because he’s raised among tribespeople as a young boy, he has a conscience and some tribal knowledge. Neither is shown to be detrimental – a certain song taught by tribal elders gets him out of trouble a lot, and his conscience helps him gain the loyalty of a friend and find love. At one point, he gets in trouble for refusing to kill someone, but that someone is his love interest so it doesn’t count for our purposes.

I don’t know if his background will be a detriment to him in later books, but it was distracting in the first book because I, a fairly representative reader if I do say so myself,* kept expecting it to be a plot point. The worst that happens to him because of his background is near the beginning, when he feels bad that he cheered while a boy was being killed. The other soldiers think he’s soft, but it’s smoothed over quickly. The author seems to expect her readers to think that in a dystopian society, a conscience would only help someone. Really?

It might be hard at first to think of ways that being different can be both helpful and harmful, but it’s worth it. It will increase immersion because it shows something that people of this world know to be true: that for every pro there is a con.


So go make your characters wildly different from those around them as possible. Give them a divergent viewpoint, non-mainstream morals, ideas that go against the status quo. Or make them the only “normal” person mixed in with a bunch of deviants. I just ask one thing: if you write your characters to be different than the world around them, write them well. Pretty please with a cherry on top, make sure that your characters make sense.

Sincerely,

An avid reader who really wants her books to be as good as possible for entirely selfish reasons.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. uschi

    Nice article! I liked your point that the differing/special trait should have both beneficial and detrimental consequences. I think this should apply to all characters, different or “normal”, everyone has certain traits that define their personality more than others, and which will get them ahead or in trouble. While this may not be the first time I read some advice like this, you presented it in a very inspiring way!

    In my opinion, one should take care not to make every single character in a story different from the general public of the setting, or believability will suffer. For example, let’s assume in a fictional society there is a common practice that all of your main characters abhor and even minor characters do not actively endorse (such as slavery or ritual sacrifice or whatever). This could create the impression for the reader that no one is actually on board with this practice, and make it very unbelievable that it still exists – and if it exists solely for your story to have a plot, that’s bad.
    So basically what I am trying to say is: make sure there is also a majority of people for your character(s) to be different from.

  2. Dave L

    > it will seem like they go against the status quo just because.

    “Just because” may indeed be the reason, particularly if the character is a child or teenager

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      If the idea is that a character rebels simply because they are rebellious, that’s still something that needs to be established.

    • Cay Reet

      If ‘just because’ is an option in your world, there’s still the question why you’re telling the story of this specific child or teenager going against the status quo.

    • Bunny

      The reason in both of those cases would probably be “experimentation” or “figuring out identity”. Exploring self, social norms, and seeing how far the limits can be pushed are good, valid, and realistic reasons, especially for younger people.

      • Cay Reet

        I agree on the reasons why a teenager or child (more likely a teenager) would push the limits.

        But that wouldn’t make them characters that go against the flow as a such. For teenagers, that sort of behaviour is pretty normal, so it’s not really ‘against the flow’ or against the norm. It takes more than just teenage rebellion to really go against the flow. As a matter of fact, a teenager not rebelling in some way would probably be more of a person different from the rest than a teenager rebelling. And, again, it would leave the question ‘why this person?’ wide open. Rebellious behaviour is pretty normal for young people, so why make this character the centre of the story? What sets this one apart from the others? And again, you have point #1 in front of you. There might be some of the others coming up, too, since the character would probably not be treated differently and it wouldn’t affect them in a different way than other teenagers. Being a teenager could be relevant to the story, of course and you could still show the good and the bad sides about being a teenager in that society.

        • Faith

          Yay, the vigilant knight defends me! (I just really like your comments, Cay)

          Also, just would like to point out: lots of teens/children rebel, but in different ways. Some cut class, some make bad friends, some read books at the dinner table. There should be a reason to justify the specific rebellious act.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, they do rebel in different ways, fitting with their overall character. Usually by going against what is most important for their parents, because that’s the best way to get a rise out of them and test the waters.

            The point about the article, however, is that a character who is described as going against the flow actually has to be specific in their ways. Rebelling teens is normal and doesn’t usually have that much of an impact on society. If a teenager is fated to change society by their rebellious acts, they must have something specific which makes them special and which shows in the story (specific stance, background, or ability, for instance). Just so you don’t think ‘why’s that one the main character instead of the next teen?’

            The ’68 generation, for instance, was the first to take their rebellion to the streets and they were unified in their demands – inspired by the hippie movement and wanting change from the post-war ‘all’s good again and we don’t talk about why granddad lives in Argentina’ society.

          • Bunny

            This would all probably depend on the society, too. Fictional cultures would probably have different taboos and norms, so both the rebellious acts and the justifications would be different.

            I just want to make it clear that I agree with you – the general reason I listed above alone are not enough to carry a character.

  3. Michael Campbell

    I still have to disagree with this article.

    Just because X happened does not need a justification.
    How many people happily drive their cars without knowing 30% of the fuel they burn, drives their car, 30% carries the exhaust up into the atmosphere, 30% exists the car via the radiator and 10% leaves their car via the engine-block!?!

    If you try to explain everything you’ll find yourself trapped in an information overload vortex.
    Science can’t tell you what happened before the big bang.
    Science can’t tell you if one divided by zero is greater than infinity.
    Science has no exact value for Pi.
    Plus, 1 Corinthians 3:18-21 so ultimately it’s okay to just tell the story you feel has verisimilitude and just be happy with having a story that people can enjoy.

    • Cay Reet

      If you say ‘this character is special and goes against the flow,’ you need to show where they are special and that is what the article is about.

      Also, don’t assume everyone has read the bible or has it close to hand. If you want to make a point with it, either cite the passages or summarize them.

      • Michael Campbell

        If you write a story about a soldier fighting in the Vietnam war, do you need to say that he volunteered or is okay to let some readers think that he was drafted and others that he signed up willingly?
        Is it true that sometimes ambiguity is more fun for the reader?

        C.S. Lewis never mentioned why the children were sent to a house in the country in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
        At the time of writing, the child relocation program was common knowledge.

        Trying to live up the expectations of “full disclosure” that emanates from “the twittervser” is deeply unhealthy.
        If the author believes that one has achieved verisimilitude then one should go ahead and publish.

    • Kel

      Considering this is a post about characters, and not the world (although created worlds should have the same “why” questions asked of them)…
      If a creator’s answer to the question of why their character behaves a certain way is “just because”, all that indicates is that the creator hasn’t thought about it. To me, “just because” sounds lazy.

      The more questions you can answer about your own characters, the more “real” they are. And, like worldbuilding, just because the creator knows all these things about their characters, doesn’t mean they have to dump it all on the audience. It can flavour the creator’s work, adding depth, and hopefully save the audience the pain of being pulled out the the story because *they* were the first ones to stop and think, “hey wait, but why?”

      • Michael Campbell

        In the cinema industry it’s called the refrigerator moment.

        Plus I’m not saying “just because is okay” but rather “and this is what happened” is okay.

        Peter Norman stood on the silver medal dais in the ’68 Olympics wearing a civil rights badge. Straight after the race, he’d been asked by John Carlos and Tommie Smith to wear it. And his response was; “I was raised Salvation Army, of cause I support civil rights.”

        But does anyone really need to ask why his parents were Salvos?

        • Bunny

          But … in that example, it’s about him, not his parents. And his parents being Salvation Army is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why he supports civil rights. Being raised a certain way can be a good reason in and of itself. Even though I haven’t read Keeper of the Lost Cities, I’m pretty sure that’s what that example was pointing out – upbringing.

          • Michael Campbell

            Oh, I concur.
            The trouble is that the twittervrse and its ilk can sometimes be like a four year old, who’s realised that responding with “but why” to anything an adult says, is a magnificently simple and yet entertaining cliche’ to reprise whenever further entertainment is needed.

  4. Alfred

    Just because … is fine.

    Consider:

    1. Why is it important for you to understand – Why it is Speth; that first came up with the idea to be silent?

    Does this not show someone who favors virtual signaling; the importance to show your credentials, above and over the actual action to make a stand? A failure to empathise with chronic affliction and/or oppression?

    2. [ Deviant morals only become interesting if ] … “Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair”.

    In 1984; would you say that the submissive Winston Smith is less interesting as a result of his readiness to conform to the authority of the state – like all the others. Only becoming interesting when handed a mysterious note by a mysterious woman? In part 2 Chapter 1.

    3. For me; immersion is increased only through an alluring agent to pull them in; with a believable world, imperative to maintain immersion. I think it important, that authors understand the Modus Operandi of all characters. It is not critical to show the MO of any character. With irrational behavior and strange coincidences, undermining a characters; compelling believability.

    I had fun reading your post. It was full of energy and life. Something I lack sometimes. Thank you kindly.

  5. Vosgita

    Your ideas are interesting on many levels, but I’m puzzle about your comments on the character of Claire Fraser from Outlander. Yes, she was a nurse from 1945 who travels back to 1745, but I don’t know that she would be someone who’d tell men she can wield a sword. I think you’re referring to women from the 1970’s and onward. Women in the 1940’s were not even wearing pants because that was considered a men’s thing. It isn’t until the 1960’s that women start wearing pants and having more “men” jobs. I don’t know if you’re taking in consideration that women in the 40’s were beginning to realize how important they were, but not the the women’s movement hadn’t started yet. I thought that for being a woman from the 40’s she was extremely progressive and knowledgeable. It’s true that Claire participated in WWII, but she was a nurse, and that was the only thing women did in the 40’s. She wasn’t holding a gun like women do today. So I don’t think that she’d say that she could handle a sword either, especially in the 1700s where laws were so thin, and people were so easily kill. In my opinion, if she had said that she wanted to use a sword, I would have not believed her. It would have taken the idea that she came from the 40’s out of my imagination. But I’d like to know why you thought women in the 40’s were so advanced as to assert themselves using weapons. You might know something I don’t.

    • Cay Reet

      Women in the 1940s also replaced men in workplaces, so those men could go to war. Women in the 1940s also went into factories to do jobs only done by men priorly. Depending on where they worked, they did wear pants, because in some workplaces, skirts would have been a security risk.

      And since the dawn of time, there have been women who wielded weapons.

    • Rakka

      “that was the only thing women did in the 40’s”
      *cough* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_World_War_II#Great_Britain

  6. Vosgita

    Also, I forgot. You can understand the differences in the eras by comparing Gillan Duncan and Claire’s personalities. Gillan is more daring and less prudent than Claire. I thought this choice was interesting because Gillian was from 1967. It made so much sense to me.

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