Friday, January 11, 2013

Should Characters Be Consistent and Predictable?

Contrasts--the element that makes a character three dimensional and somewhat unpredictable.

This definition is mine--I just made it up. Like the woman in the furniture commercial who interviews for a job: "I designed this chair at Haverty's," and she flips her hair, intimating that she is brilliant and should get this job. An interviewer would not expect an applicant to make such a statement. The female in the commercial immediately becomes the focus of the clip--not the furniture store. But she does get our attention.

Melanie in Gone With the Wind is the epitome of a predictable female character. She's always sweet and kind, nauseatingly so to a great extent. When does Melanie come alive? She grows in stature as a character when she must protect the others in war-torn Tara by picking up a pistol and killing a Union soldier who is trying to rob and rape them. We cheer for Melanie at that point, because..she has surprised us. And perhaps we like her better for it.

This photo is a study in contrasts--of objects, not personalities. But it does show the impact of unpredictable objects in a setting. If the black trunk were not in the photo, we'd see all green and probably pass over the photo. But it's the contrast that makes us stop and look.
I'm reading a romance by Pam Crook in which her heroine is 100% unpredictable. We know the character is not really a nun at the beginning--I don't know how, but we just know. As the plot progresses and becomes increasingly tense and complicated, suddenly the heroine acts seemingly out of character and does some physical things that really surprise us. In carrying out these acts, the heroine almost becomes...the hero. Good reading.
When we read...or write...romances, we expect conflict. Any good fiction writer has learned this lesson early on. In romance novels, we expect conflict between the hero and the heroine. If that is absent, there is no story. I'll amend that statement: if conflict is absent between the hero and heroine, there may be a story...but most likely it's like weak tea--bland, tasteless, and colorless. But I digress from contrasts.

Do we expect our heroes and heroines to act entirely out of character? No, not particularly, but I say that in doing so, the character will make a greater impact on us as readers.

In Kat and the U.S. Marshal, Kat Cameron is living and acting like the town society leader and benefactress. Why? Because that's the persona she wants to portray--act like a lady at all times, as her mother tried so hard to teach her. But when Marshal Diego Montoya arrives, events force Kat to revert to her wild days of following her brother around on the ranch. She dons pants and boots, and buckles on her Colt .45 to help her lover Diego nab the suspect in the act. This is her true persona--the ladylike aura is more of an act.

Which story remains in your memory because of a character who surprised you? Was the character male or female? Was the contrast believable?

Happy reading and for you authors, happy writing!

Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
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  1. Hi Celia,

    I love your definition for contrasts. You should start setting up your own dictionary!

    Of course, I can't think of a single book, except the one I was reading last night. And I was disappointed by the hero. He'd been a vibrant presence in several other books in this series, but the heroine saves the day. Twice. Yay for women and all that, but this guy fell flat on the page.

    At first I wondered if it was because this was the first time I bought this author on my kindle. I have three entire shelves of her books because I enjoy rereading them so much. But then I realized that wasn't it. I've been engrossed by many digital stories.

    The problem with this story is that there weren't any surprises in regards to this character. No contrasts or twists to explore a new side of him.

    I can't tell you how disappointed I am.

    So, yeah, this works in reverse too. If characters are too consistent and predictable, it turns readers off.

    Good post!

  2. Maggie--he did surprise you, but as you said, in the wrong way. I hate that, but I have experienced the same thing with favorite authors. Maybe we expect too much of them, I don't know.

    One of my favorites also disappointed me in her newest release. The first 1/4 of the book was wonderful, fast paced, something different at every turn, a very quirky hero you just were dying to learn more about...and then it completely changes scenery and location and focus. Soooo, bland. The hero was not the main character, but he was the one who drove the story. And the author let him drive it right into the ground.

    It's one of a very few times I've ever tried to contact a big name author, but I did tell her my disappointment. I think my note went into a black hole.

    Pam Crook's western historical I'm reading made me think of this topic. Why? Because the heroine does something so outlandishly out of character for a pretty young woman, it just took me by surprise. Then I began paying more attention to her. I won't give it away, but I bet you've never read a book in which a female character did this sort of thing.

    Thanks for your thorough comment. I always look forward to reading your opinion.
    (these photos came from the Microsoft site you gave me. I'm so glad you did)

  3. Hi Celia-- nice discussion. Predictable characters may be boring on the long run. But people can't act out of characters UNLESS they have a good motivation to do it. I remember an editor saying you can have your characters do anything crazy, providing you give them a good reason to change and do it. A shy person will remain shy, unless she needs to speak in public to save her daughter or someone she loves.

  4. MONA--excellent point. The heroine in Pam Crook's novel had a good reason to carry out a courageous act that was very dangerous and tricky. But she had learned the tricks of a con artist at her father's knee--we just didn't know everything until that point.
    It's the surprise of the scene that makes me remember it.

  5. Wonderful topic. Characters come alive when they do something that surprise the reader and even surprise themselves within the story.

    It's a fine line that if done wrong, ends up as "character derailment". Examples and discussion of that might be another great subject.

  6. Gerald--why don't you write that? Character Derailment? Yes, that should be a good topic. As was pointed out to me, if a character acts "out of character," he/she better have a good reason to do it.
    Right now, I can't think of any examples concerning character derailment...but I'm thinking!

  7. Good suject, Celia, and I enjoyed all the comments. Like Maggie, I went blank on answering your questions. I'm brain-fogged from doing edits all day. I think we as authors can usually tell when our characters are "out of character" for no good reason. The story slows and may even stop. I'm always disappointed when a book does't end the way I thought it would, but these are the books I remember best.

  8. Linda--We do remember the most recent books, I suppose, that either exicted us...or disappointed us. I mentioned one to Maggie, I think. It was a huge let-down, all based on the hero changing in mid-stream--and this is an author I troll the library for to get her newest hardback. Yes, hardback...which tells you she is big. And has always entertained me so much. So this last book of her was also unforgettable...because she let me down.
    Ah, well...authors cannot be brilliant at all times.
    Thanks for visiting me here.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. No way to edit, huh?

    I can think of one particularly illuminating instance where in a brilliant bit of writing, the story took the "predictable character" and turned it on its head to create something special: the famous Inn scene in the animated Disnet movie Tangled, where Rapunzel encounters a room full of the nastiest, most violent, most stereotypical thugs ever to grace a fairy tale. Cue a song and dance routine where we learn these big, nasty men have dreams like all of us, and the characters come alive. Of course, being a comedy, a one-handed man dreams of being a concert pianist, etc. Contrast this with the two mooks who chase our reluctant hero all through the movie, who remain one-dimensional and entirely forgettable.

    If you have not seen Tangled, treat yourself to see quality writing.

  11. What comes to my mind is a book by Sandra Brown and how disappointed I was when the heroine's father dies and she has little reaction. She was very close to him and they had a wonderful relationship, then she never seems to care too much when he suddenly dies. (It was not health related and later learn he was murdered.) My daughter was disappointed in how this was written too.

    I think my character Rachel is too predictable in my latest release so I've been surprised but pleased at the reviews. I'm going try to have more conflict and surprises in the second book in the series.

    Great post, Celia! Enjoy your Sunday!

  12. Diane--Rachel is predictable, but as Gerald said, don't commit "character derailment." We don't want our characters to disappoint us, but something a little different would not derail her personality.
    It's a good idea to add a little more conflict.
    The conflict between Rachel and her father--or really Rachel's negative feelings toward him because she blamed him for her mother's death--that was a good move to set up that conflict.
    Thanks for the comment. And now finish that second book!

  13. Gerald--I haven't watched a Disney movie in decades. I saw the previews or blip on tv about Tangled--that's it. It might be worth seeing just to watch the song and dance routine of the nasty thugs.
    I have grandsons, and they liked movies such as Shrek, etc. That's not a Disney movie, is it?
    Now, they're way bigger than I am.

  14. I think, as long as the author has made the reader aware of the true persona vs the pretense, it works beautifully and is part of the story theme. However, if the author just changes the character's motivations and attitude without cause or justification, then it just becomes confusing and disappointing.
    On the other hand, a too predictable character who does everything as expected will make a reader just yawn and close the book.
    I loved Kat and the US Marshall, Celia. What a wonderful story.
    I enjoyed your subject today.

  15. Fantastic subject!

    Predictable characters can become boring, but you don't want them to suddenly become a shifter and turn into a completely other person.

    A shy person can definitely become the hero if provoked into action. I loved your example with Melanie in Gone with the Wind. She was kind and sweet, but she always stood up for what was right. When push came to shove, I knew she would shove.
    So yes I was shocked she killed someone, but I could accept her reasons because she always protected and stood up for those she cared about.

  16. Fascinating subject. We're told our characters shouldn't act out of character, but your example of Melanie is a good one. Sometimes extreme circumstances force us (and our characters) to act 'out of character' and/or display some strength we didn't know we had.

  17. Sarah--you're describing what Gerald calls "Character Derailment."--going completely off track with a character so that we don't believe it.
    Exactly--very predictable characters do become boring and one-dimensional. And yes, I've yawned and closed more than on book for it. I'd almost rather have a character derailed than one too bland.
    Thanks for your comment--you're always on the mark and thoughtful.

  18. Karen--you saw deeper into Melanie than I did. Yes, you're right, she always stood up for what was right--usually in a soft-spoken manner so unlike our Scarlet. Which reminds me--Suppose at the end of the book Scarlet totally changed and became a warm willing woman who'd given up her scheming ways? That wouldn't have been right, would it? I always wondered why Margaret Mitchell kept her defiant and wily all the way to the end.
    Now I know-such a Scarlet wouldn't have been believable.
    Thanks so much.

  19. Paula--Melanie actually shocked us, didn't she? I never liked her in the movie--not seeing her true depth of character. Now, talking about it, I see she had a backbone all along, she just kept is quiet.
    Thank you for coming by--I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

  20. Celia, what a great post. LOVED IT. I loved Melanie. She was the glue that held everything together in ways that Scarlett couldn't because of her sweet temperament, her overlooking things, but her heart was just as passionate as Scarlett's. Another example of that was when they were all waiting for the men to come home and everyone knew what was going on except Scarlett. India Wilkes started to say something catty, and Melanie said, in front of everyone, "One more word India Wilkes and you go out of this house." In that time and place, that was almost as daring as shooting the Yankee soldier. I think that's what Scarlett eventually saw in Melanie--a heart like her own. But it was too late. The contrasts were there, but so was the underlying "likeness"--the heart of the south, just shown in different ways.

    As for Pam's "Hannah's Vow"--you will love that book. That remains my favorite of everything she's ever written. Such an unusual premise and plot. I'm so glad you're reading that, because I know how much you'll enjoy it.

    I guess the book that has something contrasting, almost to the point of not being realistic, is Louis L'Amour's "Conagher." There is a part in there when Conagher, wounded, catches up with the outlaw Smoke Parnell and his gang. Conagher passes out and falls off his horse. After all that has led up to this, the logical thing to do would be for Smoke to kill him. But does he? No, he tells one of the younger outlaws to stay with Conagher and see to him, and if "you become half the man Conn Conagher is, you'll be worth your salt." or something to that effect. I didn't buy it. In fact, I'm sure my mouth was hanging open. That's the example I use in class of "character reversal" that (at least in my opinion) should not have happened. If the young outlaw had stepped forward and said, "You wouldn't kill a man in this condition, would you, Smoke?" then it would have give Smoke an "out" to have left him with a surly remark like, "Why don't you stay here and nursemaid then?"

    I loved Kat and the U.S. Marshal. Your characters are always just wonderful, Celia, and yes, they do surprise us--I'm thinking of All My Hopes and Dreams. Cynthia was full of surprises!

  21. Cheryl--my lands, girl. You always write a better comment than I did when I wrote the blog.
    About Melanie--see? I did not remember that scene with India Wilkes. Fascinating.
    I'm glad you recognized the book I'm reading--Hannah's Vow. I've never read anything by Pam Crook, although I've seen her name. This book was free and I grabbed it. I grab a lot of free books, but rarely find anything worth keeping--all unknown Indie authors--maybe a couple of times I've found a new author.
    But this story really is good--gritty and pretty dang awful at the beginning...I'm close to the end, and hope to finish it tonight.
    Conagher--this is why you're such a good teacher--you pick up on things like that, and you're able to voice your concern. Me? I might briefly think...that doesn't seem right, or out of character...but can't go any further.
    I'm surprised you remembered All My Hopes and Dreams. That was my first book, and was years ago. I was proud of that book. I had three written and laid the first chapter out in front of my writer friend. Which would you submit, I asked her. She chose the other two, and said Hopes and Dreams just didn't measure up. But in my heart I knew it did...and went against her advice and submitted it to TWRP. That was in their early days, and I got a contract in two weeks for it.
    You're always inspirational, and I always learn something from you.
    Thanks so much.

  22. Food for thought. I'll think about this while I'm reading my next novel.

  23. Ann--thanks for the comment. I looked up your blog about the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells and left a comment for you. It really brings back many memories.