It’s an easy trap to fall into. Your character is written into a corner. They need to change, grow or get past something that is preventing them from moving forward. So they do something drastic, they make a big leap, but in doing so they act, well, out of character.
Think Bella Swan’s random acts of bravery when she is normally pretty okay with being saved by werewolves or vampires and her brief stint as an adrenaline junkie or Claire Randall’s rapid switch from being a faithful wife trying to get back to her own time to being a willing and completely enamored wife to a hot young Scot in 1743 who no longer has any ambitions to get back to her old life.
These changes help the story along. They set up the action. They get our characters in or out of trouble. But if they are not consistent to your character’s personality, they might lose you your readers. Obviously Ms. Myer or Ms. Gabaldon managed to do alright in spite of their character issues, but for others it can destroy their story.
It’s all in the editing.
I have experimented with mapping out character personalities before starting a novel. I have made elaborate spreadsheets of all the different people who would be important to a story. Their core values, their flaws and their histories. How they would interact.
What I have found over and over again is that characters take on a life of their own as the story unfolds. You can intend for Rick Morgan, PI to be a gruff, closed off workaholic who is struggling with abandonment issues but as you write your first draft Rick might prove to be a reckless alcoholic who cannot hide his feelings for Madeline Rosario. When you’re finished the draft you’ll find you have a man who is decidedly lopsided in how he acts through out the story.
Let your characters develop naturally. You will find the personalities that unfold on their own are so much more vibrant than what you could have initially conceived for them.
And when the first draft is done, go back and lock them down.
Give them all a Myers Briggs test
Now that you know them intimately, determine their personality type the way psychologists and head hunters do. This test can reveal the core of your character, the things that won’t change no matter what your character faces or how they grow. An ESFJ will rarely act impulsively or reckless. They will be the type to defend their family and friends no matter what the cost. An INFP might have their faith tested but ultimately they would never abandon their ideals. Once you know these things about your characters, you can go back and look for points where they do not sync up with what you know of them.
Explain the change
A miserly old man hates Christmas. He’s mean and greedy with everyone he encounters on Christmas eve. He mocks people for their goodwill. The next morning he wakes up and starts giving his money away to charity and makes his impoverished employee his partner, thus saving the man’s ailing son.
This story makes no sense. We need to know of Mr. Scrooge’s crazy night in order to understand the change he has undergone.
Frequently characters need to change in order to drive the plot. In my current project, Dr. Colleen Percival needs to accept that there is something more to the world than cold hard scientific facts. This is incredibly hard for her but entirely necessary for the story. It would have been so easy to give her an “ah ha!” moment and have it be done with but this change is so very much against her core values at the beginning of the story that it has to happen carefully, with her kicking and screaming the whole time. When it finally comes, she is not a new person. She is still tenacious, sarcastic and focused to a fault, but now her focus has shifted and her boundaries have expanded.
Locking down your characters, in my opinion, is one of the easiest and most fun ways to clean up a story. It has a big impact in how your story reads and how your readers relate to your work. Remember a good book introduces characters that come to feel like friends to readers. If they are not consistent, the reader may choose not to associate with them anymore.