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I was doing some exploratory writing without much planning/thinking and one of the characters acted in a way I wasn't expecting!

In the narrative the character (normally kind/warm) is under stress, but I wasn't expecting them to behave the way I wrote them (aggressive/dismissive). I've not had good feedback on the scene because of it.

I'm wondering how to decide whether I should keep on this direction, and on a rewrite/revision drop hints; or if I should completely revert them to their loosely planned characteristics (kind/warm) regardless of the background stress they're under?

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  • For clarification, you had feedback on the scene and it was negative? How far into the story is the scene (how established are the characters by that point)?
    – towr
    Apr 26 at 12:10
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    @J... "You speak as though your characters have minds of their own and do things without your input." It feels like that sometimes, but it's just me writing. Apr 27 at 17:25
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    @justhalf No I wouldn't. I'm guessing it's more that my subconscious has ideas about the character that I'm not conscious of? Apr 28 at 10:15
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    I'll agree, sometimes my characters just seem to start making decisions all on their own. They follow the general arc, but it's like they need to let you know there's more going on. It's just a kind of creative process that seems to happen when things are in flow. I coerce my characters at my own risk.
    – DWKraus
    Apr 28 at 12:24
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    Even Isaac Asimov said “My characters always manage to have a life of their own and they generally do things without my consciously willing them to do so.” [Banquets Of The Black Widowers, in the afterword to ‘Neither Brute Nor Human’]
    – gidds
    Apr 28 at 17:30

4 Answers 4

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In general, I agree with Joelle, but I think it depends on a number of factors:

  • What is the role of this character? In particular, is this character intended to be static or to develop?
  • If this character is intended to be static, were you already planning to give them more "screen time" for other purposes, or are they a minor character who won't appear again?
    • The work probably should acknowledge this departure in some way or foreshadow it. Since your character is static, we've already ruled out this moment itself serving as foreshadowing of some greater development later on, but for a character you intend to develop, that would also be an option. In time-constrained media like TV and movies, this may not be worth doing (and so you should consider removing the OOC moment altogether), but in a more flexible medium such as a novel, you have a lot more leeway for this sort of thing.
    • Giving your minor characters too much development and growth can make it harder to keep the reader focused on your main characters. However, there is a balance; a totally static background cast may feel simplistic and boring.
    • You might also consider contextualizing this as a round-static character rather than a flat-dynamic character (i.e. "that's not character development, you just never saw them when they're angry" - but you will obviously need to reword that to appropriate in-universe phrasing). The advantage here is that you don't need to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about how the rest of the cast is going to react to this "new" behavior, because it's not new, it just hasn't been seen by the reader before.
  • If this character is intended to develop, does this moment demonstrate the kind of development that you want the character to undergo?
    • If the out-of-character moment aligns with the direction you want the character to take, then that's great, you can use it as a starting point for their subsequent development.
    • If the out-of-character moment is directly contrary to the character's intended development, then that can still work, because the character may reflect on their behavior and their own ideals, and consciously decide to behave differently in the future. Arguably, this is even better than the previous bullet, if handled carefully, and assuming you're willing to give the self-reflection plenty of "screen time."
    • The problem is in cases where it's a gray area in between those two extremes. You want the out-of-character moment to connect with the intended character development in some sort of logical way, or else it will just feel random.
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Can It Serve A Purpose?

I personally find that these little events in the story with character acting out of character are god-sends for writing. I get subtle sub-plots appearing and unexpected conflicts that can complicate an otherwise boring scene. My characters become richer and more complex, less two-dimensional and with deeper inner struggles.

The big question is, "Does this serve a function that advances the plot, advances the development of another character, or that makes the character even more relatable?"

  • PLOT: If this character is truly good, but for a brief moment seems darker, do antagonists seek to take advantage (incorrectly)? Does there need to be internal conflict in the group to increase drama? Can this reveal some deeper secret related to the plot (the character got angry due to childhood abuse that reveals the protagonist's father as an alcoholic)?
  • CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Perhaps your protagonist is a Pollyanna and hopelessly naïve about life. By having an unfailingly good character reveal a dark side, they are opened to the idea that everyone has a dark side. Maybe later, when they themselves fly off the handle inappropriately, they are more forgiving of themselves and survive the situation. This is just one example.
  • EVEN MORE RELATABLE/GOOD: Everyone has angry moments. Even Jesus scourged the money changers. If your unfailingly good character turns around and is desperate to make amends, explain their reasons (dark secrets?) or redouble their goodness, then the character can still appear completely good, yet become more relatable. If the reason is dark secrets, the plot may thicken AND the character is still sympathetic.
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As a Discovery Writer, I live for those moments, I absolutely want my characters to surprise me and act on their own.

At the start of the story, all my characters are malformed lumps of clay; I have imposed upon them some basic personality type, but that is just a veneer they wear, their "every day" personality.

Under stress, they reveal their true selves; their unguarded selves. Beats me what that is! Whatever feels appropriate to them in the moment.

But once I find it, I go back to the beginning, and reshape that lump of clay, to better reflect who they really are, AND whatever veneer they wear.

In normal life, this girl is sweet, joking, and gets along. Under stress, she is calculating and ruthless and takes no prisoners. Of course there are alternatives, but when somebody tried to rape her, she had an opportunity and blinded him for life. And she feels no regret for it. She doesn't brag or talk about it, she won't even admit it was intentional. She changes the subject when it comes up, and returns to being sweet, joking, and getting along. But my readers know she doesn't cower under pressure, she is stone cold analytical and as ruthless as they come. Any time she is threatened, the reader feels tension about how she will react; because in their mind cowering is off the table.

As far as I am concerned, characters that feel like they have their own minds are pure gold. Now that you know who that character is, rewrite whatever you need to make this consistent, both their easygoing character and this underlying whatever-you-found, be it steel or dung.

Chances are your subconscious tossed you this one over the fence, knowing you need more drama and realism in your story. Let your subconscious be your collaborator. As you write, you subconsciously build models of your characters as if they are real people, not just puppets on your stage. Your subconscious is telling you, based on what it knows so far, this is how that person should react. It should do that with all your main characters, and this is great, your sub knows better than you what a consistent person is like, with both light and dark in their personality, both grief and joy in their past.

If you need to adjust your ending to make it plausible, given this change in character, do it. We write scenes from our imagination, but the subconscious does 95% of the work in making imagination realistic. Consciously we pick the words and order, what is important to convey in the moment, but the subconscious is providing the imagery and simulating the characters, what they are feeling and thinking.

Trust it. If your subconscious says your character is aggressive/dismissive in this circumstance, then based on what has happened before, it has concluded the character's kind/warm exterior is too unrealistic, and under stress their core is exposed. Perhaps for this character it is a matter of choice, or childhood training and discipline, to be kind/warm. Perhaps they have always gone along, to please Mama and Papa, to be a good boy and get their praise, suppressing their natural more aggressive and dominating urges.

Go with that. It is a gift from your subconscious. It has developed a character with depth and layers and skills you did not design in. Revisit your story, and see where hints of this deeper personality might be foreshadowed or hinted at. Incidents from the past, recalled, perhaps, that your character blows off as no big deal.

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    Very well put. +1
    – DWKraus
    Apr 28 at 20:36
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My answer would be to keep the reaction to the stress.

This kind of thing where characters sometimes react and do things I do not expect is something that I let influence my writing and I usually feel like it results in more realistic seeming characters.

If you want to you might be able to tweak other parts of the work to maybe foreshadow this might happen or to have another character maybe check in with the character who reacted in an unexpected way. After all, even kind and warm people can break under pressure (especially if the kind/warm aspect is a mask they might be portraying to protect themselves or otherwise be more comfortable in their life).

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