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I remember watching a criticism of The Last of Us 2, and there was this guy who said that Tommy acted out of character and it was a bad thing.

In the game, I think (spoiler alert) Tommy initially tells Ellie to not seek revenge and it's not worth it and Joel wouldn't want her to risk her life to avenge him, but later Tommy is mad at Ellie for not seeking revenge and living her life as she should.

Now, I haven't played the game, so I am not sure if the criticism is valid, but the point is is that there are many incidences where people may not agree if a character acted out of character or not, but as a writer, you don't want your characters to be out of character, so there must be some criteria or methods writers can use to determine if a character in your story acted out of character, so I would like to have some insights or tips in doing just that.

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Basically, this comes down to Theory of Mind. The author, the readers and other characters in the story try to understand a character's behavior in terms of their beliefs, desires, intentions, emotions, thoughts and so on. Only the author gets to be certain of what these are, because they are the one creating the character*. Readers and other characters (unless they are literally mind-readers) will need to infer mental states from circumstances and behavior (including dialogue). So there is a source of error there.

If you think you have a firm grasp of how someone's mind works, and then they suddenly behave inconsistent with that, then it feels like they act out of character. This can happen for a number of reasons: you might just not have a good model of someone's mind. Or, they might have changed, and your theory of mind is no longer valid. Or they might have been taken by madness and all bets are off.

If you want your characters to make sense to your readers, then you want to avoid having your readers run around with a faulty theory of mind for too long. It's fine (sometimes even good) for them to be wrong a little while, and have a character surprise them. But after that happens, you need to give the readers the clues they need to update their mental model of the character so it makes sense again (in hindsight). Maybe they were mistaken about the character's motivation, and it's not power but greed, or ignorance instead of malice.

This is also how you can have the distinction where one character in the story might act "out of character" according to other characters, but have it be "in character" for the reader. The reader might know what really drives their behavior, where other characters don't. (And unlike with readers, you're not obliged to ever clue in other characters and have them make sense to each other.)

*) In practice, it's also often a journey of discovery for the author to find out what their character is really like. I don't think you ever start off by writing down an exhaustive list of beliefs, desires, etc. It's a fuzzy ball of mental wool you partially unravel as you develop the character. But you're the person most knowledgeable about your character. If they don't make sense to you, don't bet they'll make sense to your readers either.

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Have a good idea of their core personality traits in the eyes of the reader.

The core disagreement that a lot of people have from TLOU is that a lot of people felt that Tommy and Joel were extremely paranoid people who don't trust new people because lots of new people are bandits, and in TLOU2 they trusted people, and negative events happen. There's a lot of parallels between how they are seen acting in one scene with Henry and how they act in the sequel, enough to make this a large emotional dissonance in behaviour.

Druckmann felt very differently about this scene with Henry, and viewed Tommy as a person who easily trusted others and so would do so again.

A quote from Jim Butcher comes to mind on this.

Q: When you are writing books, do you keep character bibles for yourself or for the publisher?

A: I do keep them for myself every time I’m making up new characters and so on. I make up a little dossier entry on the character, of who they are, Sometimes I draw a picture of them, but because I can’t draw…they don’t look like that. I’m not sure where the Dresden Files one is right now. Probably in a box somewhere. Mostly I use the Dresden File wikipedia these days, because the fans, you guys, are so much more on the ball than I am with this stuff. Now, bear in mind that I’ve seen so many slightly different versions of the Dresden Files over the course of writing the books, whereas you’ve only seen the final version. So it’s much easier for you to remember, “Oh yeah, that character had purple eyes”, even though in my head they had been yellow. I’ll look at the book and think, “Oh, I must have changed the eye color and didn’t really think about that. Well, it was 4:30 in the morning when I was doing those edits.”

So now mostly I just go to the fan wiki. Fans are so much better at keeping track of that than I am, and the fans are the ones that want to say, “Look, you missed this detail, you got it wrong.” I guess you’re right, I did. But now people like that build wikis, so “No I didn’t, because I cheated.”

Have a beta, a fan wiki, or a discord.

As such, one of the key ways to avoid the issues that TLOU faced is to ask your fans what they think. You can have a person read the story for you, you can have a wiki, you can have a discord. You need to have some idea of what they think of characters so you don't get confused as to what's happened.

Have character notes which you consistently use.

When you have a character you need them to have consistent traits which they display again and again in scenes. For example I track these, and make sure every act they take is consistent with these, or an evolution they are undergoing in them.

  1. Their core goals.
  2. How they act differently around key relationships.
  3. Their personality in terms of braveness, intelligence, impulsiveness etc.
  4. What makes them especially emotional.

If these are gonna change in major ways I make sure to foreshadow them a lot. This helps people understand why they acted weird. Consulting with beta readers helps on this. Often I find a change that I thought made sense doesn't make sense. More bridging scenes are needed to make their behaviour understandable. TLOU 2 suffered, many felt, from having a fairly quick start to the Tommy scene. Having more time to make a change seem natural helps a lot.

For example, here are my notes for a character from one of my stories.

Keelan O'Kenny.

Core goal. Stop murderers like his father. Hide and suppress his psychotic nature. Protect his mother and sisters and adoptive father. Evolving towards unstable violence and towards valuing friends more. Relationships. Mostly has rude arrogance to keep people from prying close. Respectful and polite to adoptive father. Complex mixture of love, hate, fear, and confusion around father. Fear of superheroes evolving towards more trust. Personality. Impulsive, brave, disorganized in life and relationships, disagreeable, emotionally unstable. Trigger points. They want stable family relationships, and will react with trust, fear, and hate towards people offering them (including serial killers who use them to get victims). They like showing off their knowledge of serial killers.

Or for a minor character.

Traffic warden in east. Core goals. Collect bribes, support family, avoid trouble. Relationships. Respect to superiors, condescension to subordinates. Personality. Petty bully, suck up. Trigger points. Threatening jail. Lots of money.

For any character turning up a lot in a story I make some short notes on who they are. This means I can make sure their personality traits shine in a scene, and I can keep them behaving consistently.

Avoid common problem areas.

  1. Be careful around suboptimal choices. If a character does something that makes life much worse for them then it'll cause more dissonance than if they change personality on some trivial matter.
  2. Be careful around making characters evil. If you make a person do a notably evil act, and they don't have a history of doing such you're more likely to cause dissociation from the character.
  3. Be careful around sexy characters. Characters that readers are likely to sexualize, such as bad boys with silver hair with an angsty past, are more likely to have people somewhat rationalize their acts as good and see it as out of character if they are evil.
  4. Be careful around sexual, racial, or ideological people. If you represent a popular group that people like and make them especially good or evil people are likely to feel you're making a political statement more than having characters.
  5. Be careful around characters you like or you dislike. Self inserts or characters modeled after lovers or enemies are more likely to be bent by you to act out of character.

Through experience and beta readers and fan reactions you can get a better idea of if your characters are viewed as behaving in character.

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