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Do you need to explain why your character acted out of character? I heard that to write complex characters you need to write them so that they're believable, they feel like a living character and they're fully fleshed out. So I am thinking that if a character acts out of character you're making them less complex since they're less believable. The issue is that if you explain, you're essentially telling and not showing, so I am wondering how to do it properly.

As an example, let's say a slave who got mistreated by a people of a different ethnicity holds a grudge against them, and then when he becomes powerful he helps them towards achieving the goal of building an empire, and instead of outlawing slavery and punishing slavers of that ethnicity, he rewards them to increase political power when he doesn't need more political power, what would you do in that situation? Would you rewrite the story so that the character behaves in a more conventional way, or would you have him explain why he chose to support them, which is telling and not showing?

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    A character doesn't become less complex just by adding something that's unbelievable. Making Hamlet an invisible pink unicorn does not make him less complex, but it does beggar belief.
    – towr
    Mar 17 at 6:44
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    An ex slave choosing not to outlaw slavery isn't acting out of character. It might be hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is a very common part of the human character. And what do you mean by an explanation: it's good to show how someone like your ex-slave came to act in a specific way (explaining by revealing their history), it's bad to write "this is John acting out of character, it isn't how he would usually act, but the reasons are...".
    – Stuart F
    Mar 17 at 20:52
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    Be aware that "show, don't tell" isn't some absolute rule of writing. The stories I like tend to show more than tell, but there's nothing wrong with telling when appropriate. Especially when it's likely a large portion of your audience won't get the nuance you were trying to convey. I'd even argue it's pretty much impossible to write a good story without some amount of telling.
    – MichaelS
    Mar 18 at 23:54

8 Answers 8

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I would argue the exact opposite - if a character is complex enough, then you can't predict every of their action as being "in character". They'll always act surprisingly here and there. And every action brings a new insight into their character.

To expand on your former-slave-become-powerful example: everyone is unique. Just because your character is a slave doesn't mean that they'll abolish slavery once they become powerful. Perhaps they'll decide to enjoy their time at the top of the pyramid instead. Perhaps they'll convince themselves that slavery should be abolished eventually, but that the people are not ready yet, whatever that means. Perhaps they'll decide "I'll do this one last thing first, then I'll abolish slavery" but there is always one other last thing. Perhaps they'll decide the economy of the country is in too bad a shape, or the country is on the verge of war with another country, and risking a civil war by abolishing slavery is too dangerous. Perhaps they'll want to abolish slavery but just won't know how to make it happen. Perhaps they're afraid they'll lose the support of other powerful people if they try to abolish slavery.

Just because they have a grudge against another ethnic group doesn't mean they will only make decisions towards hurting that other ethnicity. Perhaps they'll forgive. Perhaps they'll decide the well-being of the nation is more important than their personal grudge. Perhaps they'll find a more convoluted way for revenge.

As for "not needing more power"... There is such a thing as never being satisfied. Some people will always want more power. Either out of personal ambition, or because they believe that they have a duty to their nation and that they keep facing obstacles and believe that more power would help them. Perhaps they think that rewarding the slavers is a temporary necessary evil, a compromise that they can convince themselves they're willing to make.

You wonder about "show versus tell". I don't think this is really related to how "in-character" or how "out-of-character" your character acts. It's just related to how you write. If you feel that your character's motivation are unintelligible and you decide to explain all their actions during laborious dialogues in which they explain why they did what they did, then yes, you're "telling, not showing". Perhaps you should try telling less, and getting a few beta-reader's opinions on how understandable your character is.


On the other extreme though, if your character keeps doing what's convenient to advance the plot, they can become a "plot tool", and in this case they'll stop being believable and they'll stop having character altogether.

This is what happens in every Stephen King book at some point in the story: all "bad guys" eventually lose all their personality and become pure adversaries, with no motivation other than hurting the protagonist. This works for Stephen King because he really knows what he's doing and does a fantastic job of developing all characters in the first half of the story, and of developing the protagonists in the second half. So he can afford sacrificing a few bad guys for the sake of the plot.

This is also what happens in many TV series. A character will become a traitor just for the sake of a plot twist, effectively leading to suspension of disbelief from the viewers. That's lazy writing and it's bad.

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You don't have to explain, you have to convince. Explanation is one tool toward that end, and not a very strong one. If you know why he acts this way -- for instance, he does not have an abstract objection to slavery, but a personal objection to his being a slave, and that he fears the powerful people who enslaves them more than he hates them, so he would rather secure their goodwill for his own protection than harm them -- and himself -- you can show it in all sorts of actions rather than explain it.

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  • If you can't show it through actions is that a sign of weak writing? To what extent do you need to "show" it? To show it in such a way it's made obvious, or in such a way it could be interpreted as such?
    – Sayaman
    Mar 17 at 1:28
  • The problem is that if you tell your readers something about a character, they may not believe you.
    – Mary
    Mar 17 at 1:37
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You have to make it clear that his greed (for political power, for money, for fame, for respect, for his own safety, for women, whatever he is greedy for) is what is driving his decision. You do that by creating conflict with people he cares about; he must explain to his wife, or father, or lifelong friend why he is not doing anything about slavery, that he considers it a necessary evil for the greater good.

I can't plot your story for you, but anytime you feel the need to explain, try to think of a way to present the explanation through conflict. He needs somebody to disagree with. A relationship to damage, a heart to break by taking this selfish action that harms others. Guilt to feel.

Perhaps later he can absolve himself by reversing course, but that is not required. The rise to power has a price, often a permanent price, and you should show him paying it. In that process, the reasons for him "acting out of character" are revealed to be actually in his character, we just have not seen this selfish and greedy side of him until now.

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Generally, we can classify out of character actions into 3 groups:

  1. One-off actions. A certain trait of a character is established, but then the character does something that clearly goes against that trait. For example, your character is always calm and polite, but then they curse in a fit of rage. In this case you can show what are the boundaries of your character and what can trip them;

  2. Actions that show another facet of your character. Your audience thinks that your character's traits are established, but then you show that this is more complex than it seems. For example, your character had been shown to be always calm and polite, but then they curse at a stranger who did no particular offense to them. Thus you can show to your audience that your character actually has more than one face;

  3. Actions that reflect character's arc. Your audience got introduced to a character who has established traits, but then those traits are changing. For example, your character is always calm and polite at the beginning of a story, but by the end they may become irritable and aggressive.

In all of those cases you should be careful to show what were the reasons for character's actions and don't leave those reasons a mystery.

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Yes and no.

Does there need to be some justification for the characters behavior, or an explanation why they did it even though there was no justification? Sure. Otherwise if feels too random.

As an oversimplified example: Your hero walks through a busy marketplace. Without any buildup whatsoever, he suddenly and inexplicably stabs a bystander to death, and then just continues their day as if nothing happening.

You can't leave that hanging in the air, there needs to be some sort of explanation as to why this was considered the right course of action, or why this course of action was taken anyway.
This is a matter of Chekhov's gun. It needs to have some relevance to the story, because otherwise it is a pointless distraction.

However, it does not logically follow that a character is able to eloquently explain precisely why they chose to act the way they did. It depends on whether it was a conscious choice, and whether they're able to verbalize their thought process.

As an oversimplified example, maybe your hero spared one of the henchmen (after already killing several others) because she really resembles a loved one. He didn't actively think "oh this henchmen looks like Cindy, I should not kill her then", because that would be way too self-aware to be realistic. But he may have subconsciously become more self-aware about the henchman being a human being, which in turn led him to not kill them.

The issue is that if you explain, you're essentially telling and not showing, so I am wondering how to do it properly.

Some thought processes would be naturally verbalized when communicating with other characters), e.g. if the hero will obviously be asked by his sidekick (who was present at the time) why he stabbed that bystander in the marketplace. Having this come from a conversation right after the event isn't bad writing, it's actually a very realistic conversation.

Furthermore, when dealing with trains of thought, which lie at the basis of behaving a certain way; there can be value to showing the internal train of thought, but there can also be value to not showing it and instead having to rely on what the characters claims to be their train of thought.
For example, there is a reason why your everyday whodunit tends to focus on what the suspects say and claim, not what their unfiltered genuine thoughts are.

and instead of outlawing slavery and punishing slavers of that ethnicity, he rewards them to increase political power when he doesn't need more political power, what would you do in that situation?

Does this need justification? Yes. This is similar to the market stabbing I used as an example.

However, that doesn't mean that it needs to be said. It can be reflected in other ways, but it very much depends on what the actual underlying reason is. In other words, it very much depends on the story you're telling.

  • If the former slave is playing some high level chess game where this actions seems to contradict their main motivation, but is actually a clever move that causes some known butterfly effect, then:
    • If it will retroactively be clear that this is the case when that butterfly effect comes to fruition, you can leave it up to the reader to understand.
    • If it won't be obvious even when the butterfly effect comes to fruition, it may be more realistic to only have that explaining conversation afterwards.
    • If it is plausible that [sidekick] would obviously have pulled this character aside the moment their weird behavior happened (well before the butterfly effect would come to fruition); you're going to have to privately reveal it to that sidekick, but not necessarily the reader. It depends on whether you want your reader to be aware of the ploy or not.
  • If the overall story is one about a fall from grace, the "bad" decision is actually exactly what it looks like. You don't have to explain it when it in and of itself serves as an example of how this person's character is changing.
    • This is very common for villain origin stories, where the character at one point will do the opposite of what they used to do, which signals that their moral compass has turned.
  • If the overall reason is some PTSD-like instinctive behavior to "reward the masters"; this is something that can be telegraphed in several (minor) cases, eventually leading up to and culminating in the character being conflicted when both the severity of the "bad" behavior and the need to "rewards the masters" are both very high. This doesn't require active explanation, because it is already exposed through a chain of occurrences that this character will obviously be faced with in their life.

To really sum it up, when the reason for this unusual behavior would inherently show itself repeatedly during the character's life (even if only at specific times), it is better to show those occurrences (or indirectly reveal their existence).

If the reason for the unusual behavior is a willful but intentionally obfuscated choice; then you can either let the reader retroactively work it out once the consequence of that choice is revealed; or you can have the character outright state it when it makes realistic sense to conversationally do so.


Some examples that come to mind:

  • A Clockwork Orange: Alex (post treatment) does not quite have the words to express how his emotional state has changed. This is revealed through his (now changed) compulsive responses to certain situations, and some logical conclusions drawn by the reader/viewer on what the effect of such a treatment would be.
  • The Dark Knight: Harvey Dent very much explains his newfound behavior, because he is actively choosing to behave this way out of anger towards the world he finds himself in. It would not make sense for him to do this and not grandstand about it.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe: Tony Stark often over-elaborates his points as a form of wit. However, what he doesn't quite reveal are the little things, such as why he is so fond and protective of Peter Parker. It is the absence of blatant explanation that makes it so interesting, specifically because he over-explains pretty much everything else. The absence of an explanation speaks more than his explanations would've.
  • Memento: The entire plot revolves around finding out why Leonard kills Teddy, which seems like a very unjustified act when we initially start learning who Teddy is to Leonard. In the end, a blatantly simple explanation is revealed; but the viewer was sent on a long and puzzling quest before getting to that point. The joy was in the journey, not so much the rather blatant explanation in the end (or beginning, I guess).
  • I can't think of a specific instance, but there are cases where someone is unjustly mean to someone who likes them. They don't want to hurt them, but they need to hurt the other person so that they can get them to leave the scene or do something they wouldn't otherwise do. The way this is revealed differs on the story. Sometimes it is contextually obvious to the reader/viewer at the time. Sometimes it is only revealed that this was the underlying motivation much later, during the redemption of that character who up until then had been assumed to be malevolent.
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Retrofit the story to have it be in character. Let's say the guy hated Sam Taskmaster and promised to kill his entire family. But now that we look back, he never said much about hating white people in general. He joined an abolitionist society, but again looking back, he spent all of his time making connections and refused their calls after he didn't need them anymore.

When it's clear that he's taking a bad-guy turn, us readers can realize we were rooting for him, and he had some good qualities, but we were fooling ourselves. The guy was always 80% selfish weasel-spit and his "I've got mine" was always in character, despite what we hoped.

Big rewrites are depressing. After you've written 5 chapters you want to think they're done, with 15 to go. Adding rewrites means the writing process can be endless. But if you're stuck, it's an option. In your mind you're on chapter 6 and 1-5 have already happened, but they haven't. No one has read them and is waiting for ch. 6. It's not a TV series.

I'm wondering if you think any former slave being fine with slavery is automatically a contradiction. Do some reading. There were former slaves who weren't abolitionists. There was at least one black Confederate general. There are anti-immigration immigrants. See if you can get some ideas from them.

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  • There were slave owning ex-slaves in the old South in the USA.
    – JRE
    Mar 18 at 14:33
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Lampshade hanging.

When a character acts in a way which seems out-of-character for them but actually has a justification the audience isn't aware of (yet), acknowledge it in-universe. For example by having some other character comment on it. When another character remarks "This isn't how they usually act" or raises the question "Why are they doing that?" you make clear to the reader that the seemingly erratic behavior of the character was not a characterization mistake on your part but completely intentional.

Also keep in mind that characters don't need to stay static throughout the story. A good character undergoes character development due to the events of the story, which means that at the end of the story they are not the same person they were in the beginning.

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Truth is stranger than fiction partly because however illogical or unreasonable it seems, truth really does "just happen."

By contrast in fiction, nothing "just happens." Everything in fiction is chosen, hopefully with care… including your characters' every action.

Let's not talk about slaving, because that part of your exposition is about intent and motivation; nothing to do with character.

Let's ask why, beyond all this detail, you might want your players to act out of character?

Out-of-character actions are like the Dragon Girl's tattoo or, for a ludicrous example, Bridget Jones' pants. Yes, I do see that pants and tattoos are not character traits. The point is that all three are tools available to authors, in the same way and with the same potential effect; largely what "showing not telling" means.

In the Diary, poor Bridget is embarrassed to be caught wearing "big pants", and relieved when Mr Maybe takes one look and says "Big pants… I love big pants." In real life, such things need no explanation because they "just happen" every day.

In the film, the scene seems meant as humorous but in fact contributes nothing. Writer and director chose to devote several seconds of precious time to a pointless exchange with no lead-in, follow-up or explanation, so the result is a pointless distraction.

In anything like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an illustrated character is mandatory; in Rambo it might seem obvious; in Dirty Harry or James Bond it raises questions and in many another film, a real tattoo on an actor but irrelevant to the character might be enough to stop an otherwise perfect candidate being cast.

As Mary said, authors don't have to explain, but to convince; another way of saying "showing not telling."

Complex or simple, every character needs to be believable… and minor characters can't deserve the time to fully flesh them out.

Isn't thinking of someone acting out of character as less complex since they're less believable, the wrong way round?

Isn't the truth that if someone acts out of character that's less believable, because it's (very much) more complex?

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  • Considering how many people it resonates with, I don't think it's fair to say that Bridget Jones's underpants dilemma contributes nothing to the movie. But it does clearly illustrate that not all elements of a story will (or need to) mean something to all members of the audience. It reminds me of when I saw the Naked Gun 2 movie with my younger cousin and it got to this scene. Why missile launches, cannons and pumpjacks etc were involved made no sense to her at all.
    – towr
    Mar 21 at 6:58

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