Do you always tell the truth?
Do you use the same tone and vocabulary when speaking to your friends and your boss’s boss?
Do you behave consistently, even when you are stressed, tired, or suddenly facing a roomful of screaming toddlers?
So your fictional characters shouldn’t either.
A fully developed character will act and speak differently based on the situation, the other people in the scene, his mood, or even his changing goals. A writer must be careful, however, to establish a character’s primary voice and modes of behavior before attempting to vary them. Otherwise a reader will likely assume a character who behaves inconsistently is due to author error rather than author intent.
When to allow your character to act inconsistently:
- When the unexpected behavior or speech develops character. You’ve all seen the tough guy who turns into a marshmallow when interacting with small children—your characters can react in a similar (but less stereotypical) manner to show the reader a different side of their personalities.
- When it enhances the plot in some way. Perhaps your normally calm character has an irrational fear of snakes. Mention the fact somewhere along the line, and then dump them into a critical situation that includes snakes. Now your runs away instead of confronting her nemesis (plot twist), or else conquers her fear of snakes and earns the reader’s respect.
Questions to ask when considering inconsistent behavior
- What individuals or groups might cause a difference in behavior? For example, your hero is confident around friends and coworkers, but full of self-doubt when facing the boss. Or he’s generally friendly, except with the waitress at the local diner. (And why is that? You’d better tell us before the story is over.)
- In what situations will the character tell the truth, try to evade the truth, or outright lie? Is he usually honest? Then it might be worthwhile putting him in a situation where he doesn’t want to tell the truth.
- What groups or individuals bring out the softer side of a person? Alternately, who or what forces a naturally kind person to be insensitive or aggressive?
- In what situations might my character feel safe enough to open up and risk being vulnerable? (And did they make the right choice, or do they lack judgment in this area?)
- When will the heroine use formal speech, and when informal? What will cause her to swear if that is not her normal character?
- What might cause a normally terse character to begin babbling? A chatty character to become non-communicative?
- Don’t forget actions. In what situations might an energetic character grow lethargic, or a slow and methodical character become rash? Why might a character suddenly desist from an established habit? (Did he skip his third cup of coffee because his mother is visiting, or is there another reason?)