In “Who’s Driving This Plot?” I talked about how if a character’s choices or actions are unbelievable it pushes the reader out of the story. Sometimes as a writer, what you thought the character would do and what the character actually would do are not the same thing. But how do you figure out what the character really would do in a specific situation? Well, these questions can help.
What emotional state is the character in?
People don’t react the same when they’re happy as they do when they’re sad or angry or horny or nervous. Deciding how your character feels is a big clue to how he or she is going to act. And the circumstances that led up to this situation, combined with the character’s normal personality, will help you decide what emotion he or she would probably feel.
Who else is present?
People don’t act the same way in front of their friends as they do in front of their enemies or lovers or family. The people present in the scene can influence the character’s reaction.
What does the character want?
Our actions are shaped by what we are trying to accomplish and our perceived consequences. If someone has the power to give us what we want (or take it away), we’ll probably react differently to that person than to someone who doesn’t. Peter isn’t going to punch his boss (although he wants to) because he needs his job. The only way he would is if he got pushed too far (& lost his temper or changed his priorities).
To complicate matters, real people tend to have lots of things that they want (food, shelter, romance, money, a promotion, sleep, etc.). Some of them are going to be higher priorities than others, but those priorities might shift as the story goes on. Having a handle on what the character wants most and what other wants might conflict with that can be really helpful.
How has the character reacted in similar situations?
Yvette can’t be calm in every firefight and then start screaming and crying in the middle of one without a really big reason for the change. If there’s a big reason, ok. Better yet, show her starting to get a little more frayed each time. Show the reader the character being pushed to the breaking point. If she was barely holding it together every other time, we’ll accept the meltdown. If she was kicking butt with a smile every time before, we’re not going to buy a sudden reversal.
When all else fails…
Go back and look at your book from a reader’s standpoint. Not from a writer’s view of where the plot needs to go or based on all the character background in your head that isn’t actually in the book. Look at it as a reader trying to make sense of the story from the words written. Once you figure out options, then, you can put your writer hat back on.
The biggest point to remember is that whatever the character does now has to make sense with what the character’s done in the rest of the book. The answers are in what you’ve already written.