A classic painting of two girls reading a book together.

Sometimes, the reactions we assign to characters in the outline stage don’t feel natural when written out. In these cases, it can be difficult to judge whether planned character behaviors are unrealistic or the storyteller just isn’t in the right mindset. Since character choices can make or break a plot, getting this right can save countless hours and result in a better story. Let’s go over what to think about when trying to fit a square character into a round plot hole.

Getting Into Your Character’s Head

You can start by making sure you have the right mindset. Many character choices are based on subjective emotions. Ideally, a storyteller feels those emotions with their character to verify they’re realistic. You can foster this in the same way you get readers to feel emotions – by showing why they should feel that way. Put together a list or summary of what the character has gone through in the story that would make them feel the way you intended them to feel.

For example:

  • Anger: Ann’s buddies promised to include her in all decisions, then they started making secret plans as soon as she’d left the room.
  • Fear: If the secret police decide that Clyde is a suspect, they’ll make him disappear, and no one can stop them.
  • Regret: If Riley hadn’t been drinking that night, they’d have gotten home in time to save their father after his fall.

Two things are important here. First, the list is focused on what happened externally, not on what Ann, Clyde, and Riley are feeling. Second, it’s written from the perspective of the character. If the character is wrong about something, the error should be described as if it were true. In contrast, putting down “Ann has been paranoid since her girlfriend left her, so she thinks her buddies are scheming against her” is not going to be as helpful because it’s talking about Ann’s thoughts and feelings rather than building a case for Ann’s anger. Be Ann.

If you find that you don’t have anything to put down, or what you have isn’t convincing you, that’s a sign something in the story needs to change. Maybe your hero doesn’t fear your villain because your villain hasn’t done anything threatening. Instead of changing the scene you’re working on, you might fix this by going back and making the villain do more damage early in the story.

Now let’s say that instead of a reasonable person, you need a character that’s more like Ann – someone who has a skewed way of responding to situations. You’re having trouble feeling that out. Let’s go over what you might do.

Skewing Your Character’s Responses

You can change how your characters respond to problems by giving them a specific mindset rooted in their personal history. Consider these questions.

  • What does your character consider their biggest strength? Your character might be great at negotiation but think they’re terrible at it and instead chose violence because they’re strong and they assume that means they’re a capable fighter. If that’s the case, they might choose to fight when some careful words might have solved the problem at hand.
  • What methods have worked or not worked for the character in the past? Your character might have spent years in situations where violence was the only way to avoid getting hurt. Alternately, past failures could give them a sense of helplessness that makes them run from problems rather than face them head on.
  • How does your character view potential threats? A sheltered character might naively think that everyone is nice once you get to know them, causing them to try reasoning with enemies instead of running or fighting. A disillusioned character might assume everyone is up to no good, alienating allies.

You might want to think over the past experiences that gave your character these ideas. However, you don’t need to create a specific incident or complex backstory as long as you understand where their outlook came from.

Next, review all their responses in the story with a mind toward what assumptions they are now making and how that changes the way they feel and therefore act.

  • Everyone tried to be nice to Ann, but they knew she was a failure. So no matter how many times they promised her that she was one of them, they’d wait until she left to talk about important stuff. She’d only mess it up.
  • Those city folks always thought they’d get the best of Clyde, but he’d shown them more than once. If the so-called secret police came by to make him disappear, they’d have a real surprise coming.
  • Life was short, and then you were dead. Riley went out drinking one night, just one, and that was enough for Father to have his fall. Gone by the time Riley got home.

Sometimes this isn’t enough either. You may find that you need your character to act out a lot more. In that case, you’ll need to go to extra effort to make it feel compelling and believable.

Creating a Sore Spot for Your Character

When storytellers want characters to be especially bad, they often create a specific emotional weakness that can be exploited during the story. Good options include:

  • Harboring hatred or resentment: They might be jealous or resentful of a specific person, or they might despise a person or group who hurt them in the past. As a result, the character could go out of their way to show this person up or get even.
  • Feeling emotionally threatened: To protect their sense of worth, they might virulently defend their questionable past actions or fire back at anyone with ideas that trivialize what they value about themselves. A character with this issue is likely to ignore evidence they’ve been doing the wrong thing and double down on bad behavior.
  • Building anger: They might think that everyone always treats them like a child, takes them for granted, or otherwise mistreats them. Because of this, they might lash out at allies or become rebellious.

Establish this sore spot in the story by showing multiple instances where it comes up, the character is unhappy, and they can’t do that much about it. An authority figure might tell the character that someone else does everything better, show how their life’s work is pointless, or simply dismiss their opinion.

When you’re ready for the character to act out, just have another character say something – perhaps unintentionally – that reminds the character of these incidents. Then, they can release their pent-up emotions with behavior that’s emotionally satisfying, but otherwise irrational. They might wreak havoc or do something reckless they’d normally avoid.

Identifying Unworkable Choices

If we go deep enough into character psychology, it’s possible to make them do a lot of irrational things. But that doesn’t mean we should. Sometimes the best option is to take the choice out and rework the plot.

For one thing, audiences need to understand character behavior. The more effort it takes to believably get the character to do something, the more burden it puts on your story to communicate why they do what they do. In many cases, a character’s emotional issues or skewed outlook must be established in advance. If it’s part of the protagonist’s primary character arc, that should be fine. You’ll want to go into depth about that anyway. But if this is a side character without much screen time, setting up their motivation may not be feasible.

For another, even if the audience understands why, a protagonist who makes an obviously wrong choice near the climax will create frustration. By then, audiences should be attached to your character, and they’ll want to see them do reasonable things. Protagonists have more room to mess up near the beginning of the story. However, keep in mind that if they desperately need money and they turn down a bag of gold for personal reasons, audiences won’t sympathize with their poverty anymore. Now it’s the character’s fault.

Characters that act out too much will become unlikable. This is especially common for side characters, who often create problems the protagonist has to solve. To avoid becoming annoying, sidekicks must help the protagonist more often than they hinder them. Antagonists have more room to make reprehensible decisions, but they won’t be threatening unless they’re competent. If you need a character that does both unlikable and irrational things, a secondary antagonist is your best bet. It’s okay if they don’t feel threatening, because you have a separate big bad for that.

Your Character’s Not the Boss of You

Many writers explain character behavior as “that’s what they would do” – but it’s up to the storyteller to create situations that make their characters do things that work for the story. If your hero is refusing the call to adventure, it’s up to you to find that one thing that will compel them to risk life and limb. Give them a loved one that’s in harm’s way or a cause they believe in. Otherwise you might have to, *gasp*, change the character!

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