Something I catch as an editor fairly often — and even more as a reader — is a character acting out of character.
Years ago I read The Silence of the Lambs, which I liked a lot, so I read the sequels. I started to, anyway. In the first book, the author spent a great deal of time establishing Clarice as a hero — an FBI agent who grew up from a child who tried to save a lamb from being slaughtered. She had integrity and empathy. She was a good person.
So how do I reconcile that character with someone who can sit and eat someone’s brains as a serial killer slices them out of the victim’s head and fries them right at the dining room table?
I couldn’t. And it made me mad. It felt like a bait and switch, like the author wanted this cool scene so bad, he sacrificed the character to get it. If it had been a minor character, I could have accepted it easier, but this was the main character.
Plot twists can make your book. They can also be very dangerous. They can make us lose our heads and write things that don’t really fit, either the character, the voice, or the overall plot of the book. A plot twist can be exciting, but it can also be jarring, shocking, and can disrupt the flow of the book.
For most readers, they read as much for characters as for plot. Women fall in love with Edward. They wish Sooki could be their best friend. Guys want to be the hero they read about. Sure, the plot is important — if nothing is happening, why tell the story? But you also have to create great characters who are interesting and complex, people you love, people you hate, people you admire and emulate, people you learn from.
Another book that disappointed character-wise was Thinner by Stephen King. That book contained a whole cast of characters I didn’t connect with. I didn’t like them, I wasn’t invested in their problems, I didn’t ultimately care if they lived or died.
Think about soap operas and reality shows. People get completely sucked into those shows, and nothing really happens. People stand around and talk about each other. They get in fights over nothing. Why do people love them? Because they’re invested in the characters. For whatever reason, they care about them. They simply like to spend an hour with them.
A book that had great character development was The Other Boleyn Girl. The main character grows throughout the book. She becomes a better person, despite the crappy people she’s surrounded by. She rises above her circumstances and develops her own integrity. You root for her, you’re terrified for her, you’re thrilled when she wins in the end. Her life is pretty boring, really (compared to her sister’s, anyway, but then again, she kept her head). But she makes the book worth reading. You really dread the end — as the pages at the back of the book got thinner and thinner, I was reading slower and slower, trying to make it last. You miss her when it’s over.
The author of Silence of the Lambs tried to make us accept Clarice’s character flip-flop by having the serial killer get her addicted to drugs. But I couldn’t accept it. I know drug addicts do terrible things they would never do without the drugs, but I believe even the worst drug addict would have that line in the sand they refused to cross. And Clarice had not had years and years of drug abuse to make that line easier to cross. What she had was years and years of character development that would make that line harder to cross. It should have been agonizing, but she was laughing and dazed and asking for more brains on her plate.
Maybe you could make an out-of-character moment work if you built it up carefully over several chapters, having the character become more and more worked up and unstable, and then just lose his damn mind. Think about Brad Pitt’s character in the movie Seven. Killing the killer was out of his character, his respect for the law, but in character in that he had been pushed, corralled, maneuvered into a corner by a master manipulator. And his out-of-character moment was the plot. It was the whole point of the movie — given the right circumstances, anyone can be pushed to kill.
But … once you’ve made a character that unstable, it’s hard to get readers to feel the same way about the character afterward. They don’t trust him the same way. So you should do it with the sure knowledge that you might be sacrificing that character for that plot twist. In Seven, the movie ends immediately after his fall from grace. The character truly was sacrificed, but it was knowingly done. If you know what you’re doing and do it right, fine. But you can’t have a character act a certain way consistently and then throw a completely inconsistent action in just because it moves your plot forward.
Characters are not an afterthought. You’re not just a storyteller — you’re an author. You have to have interesting, emotionally engaging people in your books, not stereotypes, not cardboard cutouts with a single memorable character tic (like Bella’s clumsiness in Twilight — that’s a quirk, not a character trait). Get a great plot going, but develop those characters to the fullest extent. And then respect them. Don’t make them do something that is not in their character.