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How can you prevent your characters from being too predictable? I am wondering how to do that, because if your characters have clear motivations and clear personalities, then it should make them rather predictable, so the only way I can make my characters unpredictable is by making them act out of character or making sure there's some kind of plot twist where an hidden agenda is revealed. Am I correct or are there other ways to achieve this?

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Think about real people. We’re contradictory creatures and although we have traits and behavioural tendencies, we also act against those for various reasons, for example:

  • We don’t like a trait or habit and try to counteract it.
  • We learnt contradictory things as a child, leading to mixed reactions as adults.
  • We behave in different ways with different people because we react to their attitudes.
  • We don’t even realise ourselves that we have an internalised belief until we’re thrown into a difficult situation and blurt out some ugly words.

If you see characters as just a list of traits and flaws then yes, they will probably become predictable. I suggest spending time on characters’ backstories, their upbringing, and what experiences their values come from. This will inform their actions and words in a way that might be less obvious.

Of course, everyone’s predictable some of the time, and the more you know someone, the more likely you are to be able to predict what they will do or say. As an author, you should know your characters really well, so to you they’re predictable, but remember that your audience doesn’t know them, so things that are predictable to you will not necessarily be predictable to your readers.

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Being predictable isn't a bad thing. Arnold Schwarzeneggar's famous catchphrase "I'll be back" was first said by him in "The Terminator". The line, written by director James Camron, was intended to be a "rewatch" bonus... I.E. most people wouldn't pay any attention to it when they watched the film for the first time... but the humor of the line would be apperent on a second viewing. Howerver, Camron found that on a test screening, the audiences were laughing at the line without the pay off... They had understood that the Terminator's character was a master of understatement and over the top violence that by the time the line appears in the film, the audience were laughing. They knew that the seemingly innocuous line was a threat of something big when the character said it, and while they had no idea what stunt he would pull, they knew the poor policeman was not going to anticipate it.

Being predictable in character has it's positives, in that you can set up some great character humor if you can anticipate the character's response to a given situation.

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Recently I watched https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_Jury.

Fitch (Gene Hackman) is the predictable bad guy. Nicolas (John Cusack) is introduced in a believable way „don‘t want to be in the jury“, asking friends for escape strategies.

Very soon several events shade doubt on his agenda, e.g. when meeting this woman first in a store, later in his home. You know sth. is going on, but have no clue about it. The whole story is logical from the various perspectives … until the very end …

You could say, Nicolas is predictable unpredictable, and so are his actions. Nothing is mentioned about the second story running in parallel, „colliding“ at the very end, making things evident in hindsight.

There may be more films to learn from. Many follow a similar scheme, but not all.

Take Monk as an anti-example. This character is perfectly predictable, which is part of enjoying, introducing a new facet of his behavior every now and then, while the relevant story follows a similar collision path, only revealed in the last scenes.

Or take Columbo. The crime, the criminal, the victim, the motives are completely revealed at the beginning. So the criminal is perfectly known and somewhat predictable, inspector Columbo is absolutely predictable. The sensation arises from the kind of chess game good vs. evil, waiting for relevant contradictions, hence evidence. It‘s so well designed as a story, though you know almost everything from the start, that I enjoy it again and again.

So, draw your conclusions about working with the predictable unpredictable.

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