We’ve all watched the detective and lawyer shows. The good guys need proof that they’re after the real perp. They want means, opportunity, and the headliner–motive–before they can put him behind bars.
So if your readers were on a jury, would they find enough motive behind your character’s actions to put him away?
I’m only being halfway facetious with that question. The thing above all others that makes a character believable is that he acts in a way that is consistent with how the author has created him. A thoughtful planner, then, should not make the crucial move in the story based on a whim. It just isn’t him.
Unless the author has provided a motive for the character to act against his usual self. In other words, something greater or more powerful is working against what he would normally do.
The truth is, humans are mixed bags of confusing fears and desires. Which one will win out in which situation? It’s the writer’s job first to be sure the character is not a one-way street. Then it is her job to put pressure on the character so that he isn’t in his normal comfort zone. Now the circumstances are in place that would make the “out of character” actions believable.
Let’s say, for example, that your character is calm and confident, and in full control of his world. He’s that planner we mentioned earlier, and he likes order. But one day, he meets a woman who becomes the love of his life. Suddenly his world feels a little chaotic and unpredictable. He’s not above doing the spontaneous now because he has a reason to do the spontaneous.
Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).
One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.
Properly motivated characters, then, are not properly behaving ones. They can, and should, do surprising things, just as long as they have their reasons and those reasons seem plausible to the reader.
The character of Adrian Monk in the TV show Monk serves as a good example. This brilliant detective suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the extent that he rarely shakes hands and when he does, must immediately have a sanitizer wipe to clean away the germs. But being a detective, he has a way of getting into situations that put his desire to catch the criminal or to save a colleague in direct conflict with his OCD behavior.
His fears prove to be the perfect counterbalance to his astute observational powers, and he’s a much more interesting character as a result. His hesitations or reticence is believable because the writers have properly set up his obsessions as motivating factors. But his sense of right, his desire to return to the police force, his care and concern for those he works with are also clearly drawn.
Here is a “mixed bag” character. His decisions, then, can be driven by either his fears or his desires, and viewers believe them.
How about your characters? Are they mixed bags (much like the mixed metaphors in this post 😉 ) or are they one way streets?