A writer knowing what makes someone act out of character is like a race car driver knowing how changes to the engine feel. Yes, if an amateur drives the car, it can still move pretty fast. With a professional driver paying attention to the nuances of the engine, on the other hand, it’s possible to predict its reactions and improve its performance.
All right. I don’t really know anything about race cars, but it sounds feasible! The main point is that knowing what makes someone act out of character can really help you shape believable characters and situations.
4 Things That Make Someone Act out of Character
“Quick Questions for Fixing Character Behavior” and “Get Caught Up” scratch the surface of this question by addressing the situation the character’s in and what the character’s feeling. But if you’re looking for a reason to make your hero or villain act out of character, they may not be specific enough to help.
1. New Friends & Experiences
You have to plan for this one because it doesn’t happen overnight. Exposure to new people and experiences can influence a character’s values or idea of correct behavior – What? The people we hang out with change our behavior? Can’t be!
If you really think that, study herd mentality a little. It’s terrifying.
On a more moderate scale, this might influence language (Little Billy said the F word!) or behavior (Tina never drinks unless she’s with them.). This can be because the person’s values actually change or because peer pressure wins (again). Either way, to someone who knew the character before, the actions are going to look totally out of character at first.
- Exposure to different ideas (Linda came home from her first year of college, and suddenly, she’s talking crazy!)
- Changing ideas of “cool”
- Social pressure & mores (change depending on the group you’re with… funny how that works)
The classic, clichéd example is the teenager (let’s call him Tim) who starts hanging out with a “wrong” group of people. While basically a good kid, Tim wants to keep his friends, and they think that stealing from the neighborhood grocery makes them cool. Giving into peer pressure even though it goes against his morals, Tim tries to steal a magazine, gets caught, and gets in big trouble. Predictably, his “friends” abandon him, and he learns a lesson, blah, blah, blah.
You’ve heard it before. Repeatedly. But there’s a reason for that – people do stupid stuff to fit in and seem cool.
Stress is a killer. No, seriously. Peaceful people will totally get violent when put under enough stress. If you put someone under enough stress, their patience, tolerance, control, empathy, and logic all go right out the window. And whoever bothers them will follow quickly.
Here are a couple of big-idea situations that can put a lot of stress on someone.
- Financial difficulties
- Impossible expectations
- Saving the world [Just for example (AKA “Impossible expectations.”)]
- Health issues
- Threat of loss (Technically, the others could fall under this, as well.)
- All/any combination of the above
Also known as psychological damage, it’s not something to be taken lightly. People who have experienced it take a narrow-eyed view of that (and understandably so), so I recommend treating these topics with respect. Part of that means acknowledging that your character is going to change afterwards.
Here’s an abbreviated list. You’ll notice that all of these things are liable to cause stress (So the threat of any of them would definitely fit on the stress list), but they also have further effects than the stress they cause when they happen. The biggest difference is that these don’t end when the problem is resolved – mostly because the problem can’t be resolved.
- Death of a loved one (especially if unexpected or because of violence)
- Abuse (emotional and/or physical)
- Major reversal of fortune (It’s no longer the threat of loss: it’s dealing with the aftermath.)
These aren’t the sorts of things people shrug off and then move on with their lives. Maybe they don’t show the damage to everyone around them, but someone gets to see them crack. Or if they try to hold it in too long, everybody gets to see them crack in a big public scene.
Or sometimes the reaction is something no one associates with what they’ve been through. Besides depression, people can develop all kinds of issues due to trauma (Obsessive compulsive behaviors, anxiety, etc.). Monk is a pretty good example of how that can work in a story (although, we don’t know exactly what he was like before the trauma [unless I missed that episode, which is very possible]).
Monk also shows a way to use a disorder in a comedy without being totally disrespectful – showing respect to these topics doesn’t mean being humorless. Mostly, it means not belittling the topic or dismissing the event as unimportant. Yes, Monk’s disorder is used to create comic situations; however, it is still treated as a powerful thing, not something he can brush aside easily. They also show how it controls his life in negative ways, which adds a touch of realism to an otherwise over-the-top series.
4. Medication & Illness
I guess alcohol abuse and illegal drugs would also fall under this header – anything that chemically alters your brain. For example, there’s a medication that makes *most* patients very calm for procedures that would normally panic them. Except for the patients it makes very violent. Yes, you read that right.
There are also illnesses that can cause brain damage or simply alter how people think. High fevers, brain tumors, etc. I know people who swear that their spouses or children’s personalities changed dramatically after being very sick with a high fever for an extended period of time. I don’t really know the science behind it (if there is any), but I do know people who believe that it’s true. And as a writer, that’s the main point.
Using What Makes Someone Act out of Character
There are two main ways this applies to writing. The first is knowing when your character’s behavior needs to change. If you write something major happening, and the character doesn’t react, it’s going to feel false – unless you take that into consideration and write in a believable reason for the lack of reaction.
The other application is knowing what you need to write in if you want someone to act out of character. Say you need the hero to act out of character for a plot conflict. Well, one of these options could work. Just make sure that the cause is strong enough to push the person as far out of character as you need (as a rule, the more out of character the behavior, the stronger the cause needed for believability).
Also, make sure the cause gets integrated into later behavior. If it’s a game changer, you can’t use it for one scene and then pretend it didn’t happen. Well, you can, but it’s not going to do great things for your writing. But you knew that.
So that’s all I can think of as far as what makes someone act out of character. Did I miss anything important?