Eloise is a very proper young lady. Her clothes are always ironed, her shoes are buffed. She has never sworn in her life. She sits in the front row at Young Women’s and takes notes during Sacrament meeting. She volunteers at the retirement center.
It’s after midnight on Friday night and Eloise is still not home. “I wonder where she could be,” Mother frets with a glance at the clock.
“She’ll be home soon,” Father says. “It’s not like her to be this late.”
Fifteen minutes later, Eloise comes bursting in, hair awry, shoes dirty. “I hate my life!” she yells, swearing as she runs up the hall to her room.
We have just broken character for Eloise. Everything we know about her has just been shattered. And now we need to know the reason why.
I recently read a novel (I’m not going to name names) where a character acted out of her norm, her sister was surprised to see her act that way, and no explanation whatsoever was given. You cannot have a character step out of their molds so completely without providing the reason why.
As humans, we all have our patterns and our set ways of acting. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Oh, he would never do that.” By our past actions, we show what we will and will not do in the future. We do stray from that occasionally. It’s our right to be different, to shake things up a little bit. Your character has that right too. But it must always be accompanied by a reason. Not on the same page, generally, but always by the end of the book.
I actually won a game of Sardines by stepping out of my character. About twelve years ago, a group of friends and I obtained permission to play Hide and Go Seek in the Orem library after hours. We turned off the lights (spooky!) and took turns hiding. For those of you unfortunate souls who don’t know how to play Sardines, rather than everyone hiding and one person seeking, one person hides and everyone else seeks. Then, when you find the person you’re looking for, you squeeze in with them, and the last person to find the group loses.
Well, it was my turn to hide and I wanted it to be really good. The others had already gotten me and I wanted to get them back. I decided to hide in the men’s room.
I scooted myself under the sink (I was skinnier then) and waited. And waited. And waited. I could hear voices out in the hall. They were perplexed. Where had Tristi gone?
Finally one of the guys in the group came in to use the bathroom. “I’m in here,” I said softly as soon as he came in. (It was just better that way) He sat down next to me and we waited.
Soon we heard a voice outside. “Where’s Steve?”
“He went into the bathroom ages ago and he didn’t come out.”
“You don’t think Tristi’s in there, do you?”
“No,” came the sure voice of my best friend. “Tristi would never hide in a men’s room.”
Ten minutes went past and finally the voices returned. “Steve hasn’t come out. Tristi must be in there.”
“I’ll go in,” said a volunteer.
He came in, saw our shadows, and took a seat.
“He didn’t come out,” said the voices.
One by one, the guys came in to check. I was now sitting in the dark, in a men’s room, with four guys.
“Okay, we give,” came a girly voice from the hall. “We’re not coming in there.”
I emerged, having been proclaimed the champ. I had been found, but because the girls wouldn’t come hide with me, I won by default.
“I never thought you’d hide in there,” my best friend said. “That was a great hiding place.”
“And now if you’ll excuse me,” Steve said, his face a little red, “I went in there for a reason.” He disappeared behind the swinging door once again.
Breaking character can be fun.
Decide how your character will act, and then make them stick to it. If you have George acting like Mary and Dan acting like Gordon, your reader starts to feel unsettled. They don’t know if they can trust these characters. It’s not a conscious distrust, but it exists nonetheless.
In summary, keep your characters in their character until there’s a reason to break it. Make sure to explain that reason by the end of the book. It ties up the loose ends and makes things much more clear to the reader. It also gives the reader a sense of “knowing” the character, which leads to them liking the character. And that’s a good thing.