Friday, July 18, 2014

Out of Character

by Linda Rodriguez
My husband and I have been binge-watching Prime Suspect on Netflix lately. Helen Mirren is awesome, as always, but the ensemble cast is of extremely high quality, also, and the writing is superb. Until. (You knew there had to be an “until” hanging around there somewhere, didn’t you?)

Suddenly, one episode begins with Mirren’s character DCI Jane Tennison doing something so out of character and just plain stupid (for a very smart, savvy character) that both husband and I are screaming, “What? Jane would never do that!” This out-of-character action she has taken is an obvious set-up to provide lots of conflict later for Jane, but between us, we came up with four different ways the author could have set up the exact same conflict without having Jane commit an action totally wrong for her character.

Normally, I don’t even worry about this in movies or TV shows because I usually simply can’t hold them to as high a standard as I do books, but this series is so well-written that I do expect that kind of intelligent writing. It’s happened before in books by excellent writers, as well. I can understand the impulse behind it because I think there are times we all are frustrated in our plotting and tempted by the lazy way to put our protagonists where they need to be.

The writer of one of the strongest, best-written mystery series around (who shall remain nameless because she’s never done it again) did this in one of her books, causing her protagonist to violate the essence of the character the writer had spent four books building up in order to allow that protagonist to learn something the author needed the protagonist to know and to create conflict for the protagonist. It was darned near a throw-the-book-against-the-wall moment for me, and if this author hadn’t already built up so much respect, I would have.

I finished that book, in which the character went right back to being the person delineated in the previous books, and have continued reading that author. Although we stopped midway in the Prime Suspect episode, the others have been so good that we will probably give it a chance and finish it. But I have stopped reading some less-stellar authors’ series when they’ve pulled that kind of boner. If you can’t believe in a character’s reality, it pretty much blows the whole show, I think.

How do you feel about a major character making a move that’s not just a surprise but completely wrong and out of character? Do you just shrug and move on, or does it bother you as it does me?

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger):

Mary, yes, a good editor will catch these moments, so if they show up, they're a failure in editing, as well as in writing. It can be a temptation to force your character to do something s/he's too smart/ethical/whatever to actually do, simply because you need it to happen for plot purposes. But there's no sense in working your butt off to create a realistic character to turn her or him momentarily into a cardboard cutout for convenience's sake. 

I know just what you mean about that itch, Mary S. The right motivation can make anyone do just about anything (Sophie's Choice, anyone?), but you've got to show me the motivation. My Skeet Bannion is not a hot dog/cowboy cop like so many protagonists and wouldn't normally charge in alone after an armed murderer with a child hostage, but in Every Last Secret, she does just that because the antagonist has started hurting the child.


  1. I think you've hit on why writers need editors, to hone in on the things that don't make sense. I do want characters to stay true to themselves, and if situations take them off course, as can happen to us all, I want them to recognize it and right themselves. You've also reminded me of how difficult good writing really is . . . so many aspects to keep track of, like the plate-spinning act in the circus.

  2. No, just no. It bothers the heck out of me when a character (any character, male or female) does something ridiculously out of character. I mean, yes, we all do things that make those around us say, "why'd you do that?" Sometimes we're trying to push ourselves or learn something or try something new. And that's cool. But just for the sake of a plot device? No, it drives me crazy, like a itch between the shoulder blades that I just can't scratch.


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