The Complexity Of Complex Characters
A glass slips out of Mr A’s hand and smashes on the floor. He sighs and sweeps up the pieces and then gets another glass out of the cabinet.
A glass slips out of Mr B’s hand and smashes on the floor. He lets out a howl of rage and stamps the pieces into dust under his feet.
The different reactions of these two men are both perfectly plausible. But in this case both men are the same person. The only difference is that these two events occur on different days when Mr A-B is in dealing with life in different ways.
Again, perfectly plausible. We all have our moods. We all have good and bad days.
However, in fiction, having characters react in a variety of ways to more or less the same stimulus will make them appear to be acting out of character. But when is it distracting and unnecessarily convoluted, and when is it a reasonable depiction of the richness of human interactions?
Readers like to feel they know who a character is and often the way this is achieved is by limiting the way they behave.
The best friend is reliable and supportive; the bad cop is always up to no good; grandpa is always complaining. If you reduce a character to one or two characteristics it’s much easier to get a handle on who they are and what their role is.
The problem with this approach is that it’s simplistic and unrealistic. While you can get away with it in stories aimed at a younger audience or designed to deal with a very specific (and narrow) view of life, as soon as you expand the story into something resembling real life those characters are going to feel like cardboard cutouts.
Filling out a character with a range of possible reactions can end up being confusing and messy. When the character in question is a major one this problem is usually avoided by dint of spending so much time with them. Chances are we will see what has caused them to shift from one mode of behaviour to another.
Not only does this avoid confusion, it also helps reinforce the narrative. If something terrible happens in the previous scene and then in this scene the character is not her usual self, then it shows that events have had an impact.
What is trickier to pull off is when it’s a minor character we don’t see that often. If we don’t see the transition from one state to another, it can seem the character is some kind of schizophrenic. A good writer can smooth over these transitions using foreshadowing and hints to the cause of the change, but in some cases it’s important to the plot that the reasons for the change in behaviour not be revealed yet.
If Quiet Mary is always softly spoken and shy, and then in one scene she becomes very sarcastic and confrontational, there may well be a very good reason for this change, but if the reader doesn’t know what it is, it can come off as bad writing and poorly realised characterisation. And in many cases that turns out to be exactly what it is.
If the writer needs a bit of drama in one scene, why not just have a random character stir things up?
That’s why readers are often not keen to just keep reading and see how things turn out. They’ve been burnt before.
To the writer it may seem obvious that it’s all part of the story and things will become clear shortly, but the reader doesn’t know that. And it can continue to be distracting even as the story continues. The next scene may be set somewhere completely different with other characters, but the question of whether something happened to Mary or if she was just written in a loose manner can keep the reader from remaining fully engaged with the story.
An easy way to put the reader’s mind at rest is to have a character within the story comment on this uncharacteristic behaviour.
Two characters can mention it to each other. A character can point it out to the character in question. Or the character can make the observation about themselves.
The observation can include an explanation of the behaviour, but it can also be just noting the change and wondering about it. Or an explanation can be offered that turns out to be wrong.
It depends on the circumstances and the writer’s preference. No one way is necessarily better than another. The important thing is to show the odd behaviour has been noticed. This allows the reader to move on with the story knowing the change is part of the story and if it isn’t explained now it will be dealt with later.
This works for any sort of deviation from the traits you’ve established for a character. Readers don’t expect characters to be one dimensional, in fact I think most would prefer them not to be, but sudden shifts (at least from the reader’s perspective) can be jarring. A simple acknowledgement that it happened is often enough to keep the narrative flowing.
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