January 17, 2010

What to do When Your Characters go Crazy

In Shakespeare’s play “Henry the Eighth,” the character Lord Sands says, “If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me.”

Do you allow your characters to talk a little wild? I don’t mean “irreverent” or “profane.” I’m wondering if you let your characters go a little crazy, or if you try to hold them back and tame them.

Sometimes, we writers are guilty of analyzing our characters too much. We sit at our desks, fingers flying across the keyboard, immersed in the stories that come spilling from our brains, and then we – stop. “Wait a minute. It’s not in character for Cecelia to do that!” It’s in that eureka moment when we decide that a character has reacted in an uncharacteristic way that our first reaction is to go back and fix it. But is that always the best thing to do?

It’s the uncharacteristic reactions of characters that can make them interesting. If Cecelia is an ethical person, always honest and compliant, it would be uncharacteristic for her to lie to her boss. But as your story unfolds, that might be exactly you want her to do. You didn’t intend for it to happen, but now you want Cecelia to lie! You have a dilemma. Do you let her go a little crazy, or do you reel her in?

To answer the question, you have to think about motivation. What would make an honest woman like Cecelia lie to her boss? This is where you have to do a little digging.

When you’re inclined to allow a character to act out of character, you should:

First, dig into your story so far and decide if there’s any motivation for your character’s unusual behavior. You might find some hidden circumstances that could account for your character’s action.

Next, step outside of your story’s outline and ask yourself what else would motivate the character to act a little crazy. Is there something in his or her backstory (everything that happened before the story begins)? Does he or she have a hidden goal? Be creative. Make a list of motivations without reservation; don’t hold back.

Finally, decide if it’s best to let your character act out of character. In your brainstorming, you might have discovered an angle that makes your character more interesting. Take care, though: Remember that every action, however small, needs motivation and that the motivation has to be clearly written into your story. Most of all, there must be a believable reason for your character’s action.

To read more about character development, check out Jeannie Campbell’s blog, The Character Therapist. As a licensed family therapist, Jeannie takes an in-depth look at various aspects of psychology and how writers can use the knowledge she imparts to craft more believable, realistic characters.


Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks for the shout-out, jean. :)

The Character Therapist

Jean Fischer said...

You're welcome, Jeannie. Love your blog. It's a helpful resource for writers.

Jamie said...

The Character Therapist. I love that...And you are so right. I need to take time and fully develop my character's character. Some time in the frustration just to get pages written, I forget the basics. Take care..

Jean Fischer said...

Hi, Jamie.

I tend to think in pictures, and I have some odd images running through my head when I think of my characters on a therapist's couch.

Thanks for visiting The Walrus and the Carpenter.