Have you ever read a scene where a character seemed a little too calm or reacted a little too rationally? Well, there’s a reason for that. Think back in your own life. Remember when people have told you about problems in their personal lives? From your perspective, there was an obvious and simple solution for most of them, but they couldn’t see them because they were too emotionally involved. Since you were on the outside, you could see more clearly.
When the author is looking at the scene from the outside, he or she is going to see the logical thing to do. The character, however, is right in the middle of the scene – surrounded by strong emotions. Emotions that change priorities, magnify actions, and influence decisions.
The truth of the matter is that if we want our characters to seem real, they can’t always be reasonable. They have to get caught up emotionally and make poor or rash decisions on occasion. If a character is always calm and logical, that has to become an aspect of the character (showing upsides and downsides and possibly even explaining why). But that type of character is an extreme minority, and it’s usually a side-kick or minor character.
As much as we sometimes like unemotional, logical characters (Data, for example), using them as the main character is a very risky choice. If the main character doesn’t feel emotion, then it’s harder to pull the reader in emotionally. Calm, rational behavior doesn’t usually inspire a lot of response, so characters like that can keep readers from making an emotional connection with the character. Flawed characters who overreact and have to deal with strong emotions, on the other hand, pull the reader in.
That’s not to say that characters cannot be both logical and flawed. Take Sherlock Holmes as an example: for all of his strong logic, he has flaws (he is very arrogant, is addicted to cocaine, etc.). He’s logical but not always calm because his reactions are influenced by his flaws. Those flaws keep him human and make him more interesting. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is another character who is logical and not at the same time, based on his skewed world-view and emotions. It’s the emotions shaping the logic that make these characters human. Being flawed, emotional characters ourselves, we empathize with them and get caught up in their stories.
That’s what I recommend to authors, as well. Get caught up. Read what you’ve written and imagine what your character is feeling. The more you get caught up in those emotions and the better you’re able to put yourself in the character’s place, the more you’ll be able to think of character reactions that fit the emotion rather than pure logic. Logic may be important, too, but let us see the struggle. The more you can interest our emotions, the more committed we’ll be to reading the book.