Today's guest, Susan Dennard, is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut novel, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.
When Characters Don't Act Like Themselves
By Susan Dennard
Shortly before I signed with my agent, I was entering into my final round of revisions for SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY. I knew this had to be the last round--I had done at least 10 revisions/rewrites on the book, and I was really starting to hate it. I hadn't yet entered into the world of querying because I knew my book wasn't There.
Of course, I didn't know where There was—only that I'd know it when I saw it.
And when I finally did get my first glimpse of There, I did know it. Instantly. You see, there was something off about my book. Something fundamental to the story that wasn't right. But it was also something I couldn't pinpoint. So, being a conscientious (read: obsessive) writer who was part of ten bazillion online writing networks, I logged into each one until I found myself a beta reader. I’d been burned with critique partners before, so I was very particular about finding a good reader. Fortunately, this gal turned out to be very good (we’re still crit partners, two years later).
This is what my CP said: Your main character is acting out of character.
It sounds so odd, right? I mean, my character isn’t real. Eleanor can do whatever she wants. Except not really. When a reader picks up a book, they’re looking to connect to a person—a three dimensional, real-as-life person. So, as writers, we must bring a character—this 2D jumble of words and descriptionw—to life. We do this by giving our characters histories and motivations, goals and fears. We latch onto what makes the character tick, and then we dig deepdeepdeep. Quite simply, we let the story evolve from who our characters are.
Sure, you can have a plot-driven book…but how the character reacts to each plot point must feel real. Character-building is just as important in a plot-driven book—possibly even more so because you don’t have as much time to explain why someone behaves a certain way. You must show us—and quickly—while making it all ring true.
I cannot emphasize this enough: everything your character does must be true to who he/she is.
The number one reason I put down books (to never pick up again) is a character behaving out of character. If you have painted Miss Jenny as a sweet, shy gal with a desire to blend into the background, I will NOT be okay when Miss Jenny suddenly stands on a table in chapter 2 and screams at the school cafeteria.
But I will believe it if you have her develop into that person. If she starts shy and keeps getting pushed around--if we see her temper rise and rise, see Miss Jenny start to hate getting stomped on and ignored—then I’ll believe it when she steps onto that table…
I’ll give you a vague example (though, spoiler alert!!). I love the TV show THE WALKING DEAD. Love it. But in season 2, one of the characters kills someone to save himself. While I knew this character wasn’t 100% good, he had never behaved that evilly. In fact—if anything—he’d been painted as a bad boy with some really redeeming qualities. When he killed the other guy just to save himself, I wasn’t convinced. Sure—it made sense for him to do that for the plot’s sake…but it didn’t fit what I knew about this guy.
And this was the problem in my very own manuscript. I had Eleanor doing something within the first 50 pages that she just wouldn’t do—she was being way too snarky and sneaky for the character I had crafted thus far. Sure, the Eleanor at the end of the book would do this, but not the Eleanor at the start.
Needless to say, my CP’s advice was a total eye-opener for me. I threw out that crappy scene and wrote a brand new one—one that made far more sense in the context of who Eleanor was. The plot needed her to be sneaky, but I could make her sneaky in a way that fit her earlier self.
And just like that, the book was ready. I knew deep in my bones that I had finished revising. It was time to query—huzzah! I sent out my first batch of letters and literally went off on vacation…only to get my first offer a few days later. Note to readers: do not start querying while on vacation with almost no internet access. Yes, the general rule is that publishing is a slow business, but SOMETIMES, things can move very, very fast. ;)
I’d like to think it was all that revising that made my journey move so quickly—I’m certain all those revisions and rewrites contributed. But so many other things can contribute to publishing success—not the least of which are luck, timing, and the alignment of Jupiter.
Yet—just as I knew when SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY was finally There—I know deep down that making my characters just right made all the difference in my success. Publishing is so competitive for the unpublished, and one tiny thing off about a book can break it. Don’t let character inconsistencies be that thing.
So now it’s your turn: dig out your manuscript. (I find the older the story, the more likely I have characters acting according to plot instead of according to character.) See if part of why that MS didn’t (or isn’t) work(ing) is because of characters behaving out of character. Really scrutinize; don’t go easy on yourself.
Or, can you think of any books you’ve read where the same thing happened?