Is Breaking Character Bad?
“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
Character. It’s a loaded word. It can be good or bad, real or imagined. It can speak to a person from fiction or it can speak to all that makes us human. And what makes characters human? What makes us connect to them in such a visceral way? Often we think it is that character that remains consistent, the one we really come to know, that we connect with but is that true? Think about the last character you really bonded with. Were they predictable? Did they respond to every situation exactly how you expected them to? I’m betting the answer is no. Because the biggest component in a consistent character is the ability to break character. The trick is knowing how and when to do so for the ultimate response.
First Comes Consistency
Before a character can be broken, it has to be established. As we get to know a character there are certain traits we come to expect from them. Everything from body language to their choice of slang words. These small details paired with their temperament help form the foundation of the character. More elements of the character are built on this foundation, everything from career choices to hobbies. We come to know that on a good day, in normal circumstances character X will react to situation A in an expected manner.
Next Comes Adversity
Now, imagine situation A happening on an off day. On this day character X is having a horrible day and they are running out of steam. Normal people under extraordinary circumstance may make rash decisions. They might make a bad choice, or have a kneejerk reaction you wouldn’t expect. Accept, you understand it. It happens, we break character all the time. It comes with being human, we call it making mistakes sometimes.
Then Comes Your Character in a Hand Basket to Hell
Sometimes a knee-jerk reaction leads a character past the point of no return. In my novel, Soul Purge, we watch Rashu make a series of decisions with the best of intentions. At some point the line between good intentions and bad decisions becomes blurry, and then it disappears. When we see a consistent, dependable character make a very bad, very out of character choice we connect with them. We see their humanity. And sometimes we watch them spiral out of control. The trick is to be sure that their out of character responses fit with their character. That sounds like quite a paradox!
How To Break Character Effectively
In your daily life have you ever broken character? I know I have. I do, daily. For instance, I am a total sweetheart. As long as I have had my coffee. Let’s go a step farther. Six years ago I was a dedicated wife to an abusive husband. I was dependable, I did what I was told when I was told. No matter how horrible he was to me, he could expect to wake up each day to my meek and subservient presence. Five years ago, I packed up my kids and ran away. I moved across the country, divorced him, remarried and went on with my life. If that’s not breaking character, I don’t know what is! So, how can we use “breaking character” to build up strong relatable characters? Their break needs to be authentic, it needs to be propelled by something that makes sense within the world you have built for them.
So, how can we use “breaking character” to build up strong relatable characters? Their break needs to be authentic, it needs to be propelled by something that makes sense within the world you have built for them. The answer is emotional responses. Sometimes the quickest way to get ourselves in a pickle is by following our hearts.
Love: Your character is normal one cool cucumber but in the throes of love will they lose their head? I bet Mallory never hurt a fly before she met Mickey but that didn’t stop her from embracing her soul mates blood lust. In another example, look how quickly Romeo and Juliet’s romance escalated before it self-destructed. Emotions are the crap shot of humanity, they can change the game quicker than common sense can override it.
Illness: This is another tricky element and really ties in with the emotional one. Whether your character has fallen ill or someone the love, it can be a catastrophic plot twist. Remember John Q? The illness of his son drove him to desperation, and a series of shocking choices he would never have made under other circumstances.
Crime of Passion: Here is a trigger that can flip any character on its head. Walking in on a significant other in a compromising position? Catching your child’s killer red handed? Or maybe your character has been violently victimized by someone, Lorena Bobbitt would serve as an example here.
Loss: Grief can alter the very core of a person. A grieving character may spiral out of control in a way that is more self-destructive but it is easy to justify most out of character behaviors when they are suffering a significant loss. This loss may also work in a way that gives a meek character the courage to lead a great battle or overcome evil.
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So, as you can see, breaking character is an important part of making a character believable and relatable. The key is to make sure your triggers follow the logic of your world and are compelling enough to break your character’s form. You can learn more about writing effective characters here and here.
Until next time, scribe happy and stay sassy!
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