A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about ways to develop your characters (Know Your Characters ). I’m still in the process of getting to know the characters in my new story, and I’ve taken a couple scenes from that story to be critiqued. In one instance I was questioned why my character acted a certain way, and that started me thinking about how people react in various situations.
We all know the TSTL (too stupid to live) character who knows people are being killed by something outside yet goes out into the dark and…yep, gets killed. While reading a book or watching a movie, either silently or outloud, we cry, “Don’t go out there…” (Or down there… Or in there.)
In a way, it’s a great trope. We put the readers on edge; they must keep reading to find out what happens. But it can also anger a reader. If a character is too stupid, especially a main character, I’ll stop reading. Yes, we don’t want our characters to be perfect, that’s too unrealistic, but we want them to be smart enough to stay alive.
The problem is, what I consider reasonable behavior may not be what others deem reasonable, so I need to consider what I’m asking my characters to do, and make sure I’ve given them the emotional and physical abilities to succeed. I also need to convince my readers that even though they might not act this way, my character would.
Actually, I have two choices. I either need to give the reader, prior to that scene, enough information about the character that the reader will think, Boy, that’s not how I would act, but I can see why she acted that way, or I have to hope the reader will question why the character didn’t act as expected, and will want to read on to find out why. That second possibility requires the writer, at some point not too distant from the scene, give the reader the necessary information. No saying, “Well, that’s just how she is.” The reader wants (and deserves) to know why “that’s how she is.”
This is where those character sheets and character interviews play an important part in creating a character. If my character knows there’s danger outside, yet she opens the door and goes out, I need to have given her a good reason why she’s chosen to do this. She needs: Motivation. Maybe she’s an officer of the law and even though she knows she’s risking her life, she believes it’s her duty to end the danger. Or maybe she’s a mother who believes the only way she can protect her children is by taking on whatever is out there and killing it. Or maybe the house is burning and if she doesn’t go outside, she’ll die in the fire.
Of course, not everything we do is logical. Sometimes we can be influenced by those around us. People in mobs have said, “I don’t know why I did it. It just seemed right at the time.” And if that’s the case, and if what was done wasn’t typical for your character, there should be consequences, especially emotionally.
After all, these are real people…who live in the worlds we’ve created.