January 30th, 2017

Acting Out of Character

Jessica Strawser

Mumble-mumble-cough years ago, back in my high school days, I was what you might have called a hopeless romantic—in the doe-eyed, day-dreamy way of those who have yet to actually experience romance, let alone real hopelessness. At my bedside was a faux wood clock radio, and every night after my lights were out, I’d curl up in the glow of its red neon time display and tune the dial to “Delilah After Dark.”

I don’t suppose I’ll regain any of the street cred that admission might have just lost me by going on to tell you that even then, the show was far sappier than I was. Still, I liked hearing bits and pieces of other people’s stories as they called in with their requests and dedications. The writer in me liked to supply missing backstory and imagine potential outcomes as the ballads would play in between the calls.

There was a lot of Celine Dion on “Delilah” in those days. Whitney Houston. Boyz II Men. Sometimes I took issue with the song selections, but hey, she was the expert, not me. “Slow down and love someone,” Delilah would remind us over and over, her voice dripping with understanding and hope.

And then one night, a woman called about a troubled relationship, an on-again-off-again sort of thing. I don’t remember the details, but as usual, Delilah empathetically wished her a speedy resolution and told her to stay on the line while she cued up the perfect melody. The opening notes of the song began to play, and the microphone was supposed to shut off then.

But it didn’t. And so the voice that sounded through the darkness of my bedroom was Delilah’s, but it was different. It was the Delilah who existed off the air.

“You know, the real problem,” Delilah told the woman (I’m paraphrasing here, but this was the gist of it), “is that this man is a selfish asshole.”

I bolted up in bed, wide-eyed. A slow smile crept across my face. Holy technical glitch, Batman. The curator of the museum of cheesy love songs just called someone a selfish asshole on the air. I looked around at my stuffed animals, the only other witnesses on the scene. “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I wanted to say to someone, anyone else. I laughed. I shook my head. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. Surely the producers knew what had happened?

Sure enough, after the song, she came back on the air, with a sheepish apology that what we heard was meant to be a private conversation. She tried to move on, business as usual.

But I still want to squeal in delight when I think about it. Because that was the point I stopped being interested in the callers and started being interested in Delilah. Clearly there was more to her than that sugary sweet voice.

I wanted another glimpse.

Calling Character Into Question

In my day job editing Writer’s Digest, I see a lot of craft articles and pitches cross my desk on the subject of character. The vast majority of them advise writers to make sure each character acts and speaks in accordance with his unique persona. Sound enough advice. But I see precious few reminders that as long as you’ve established who each character is (and that is a pretty important as long as—think of how easily you can conjure Delilah’s comfortable, soft on-air persona), a departure from acting in character can be far more powerful.

My novel Almost Missed You, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March, starts with someone doing something completely out of character. Finn Welsh, by all accounts a devoted husband and father, packs up and leaves his wife, Violet, in the middle of a family vacation—and takes their son with him. Poof: Both are gone without a trace.

Everyone thought this couple had a perfect marriage, the kind of love that’s meant to be. Violet is blindsided, and so is the reader. How could he do such a thing? “This doesn’t sound like Finn,” all their friends and family say. “There must be some mistake.”

Everything is immediately called into question. And it’s not long before the characters and the readers are both asking themselves: Is this out of character, with some bizarre circumstance forcing his hand? Or did no one know his true character after all? Is the boy safe with him? How can Violet get her son back?

The people in his life want to find out. They need to find out. Too much is at stake not to.  

Acting out of character doesn’t have to drive an entire story forward, though it can. It can also add a twist, a turn, a layer of interest at any point in your arc. This can work equally well with protagonists, antagonists and even supporting players.

Consider:

  1. A man known for having a lead foot gets a speeding ticket on the interstate. He complains to his friends, who laugh and point out that he’d long had it coming.
  2. A relatively sedate woman is caught going 45 in a school zone, during an hour she was supposed to be at work. Whoa, what was her hurry?

A traffic ticket is a relatively run-of-the-mill occurrence, yet even so, our interest is piqued.

  1. A known philanderer hits on a coworker at the office Christmas party.
  2. A father of three who is so devoted to his wife it’s almost a running joke has too much to drink and corners the new hire in the elevator. (Or did he really have that much to drink after all?)

Which do you want to learn more about?

  1. A bully pushes your kid down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.
  2. Your kid’s best friend pushes him down during a fight on the playground and breaks his arm.

It’s the out-of-character behavior that raises the question, “But why?”

And that’s what keeps people reading.

The next time you feel like your story needs some jazz, see if your characters might be acting a little too in character. Send in that caller who will make them slip and show their true colors on the air.

Your readers will find themselves smiling in the dark, delighted and eager to find out what happens next.

What’s your favorite “surprise” for your characters or characters in books you’ve particularly enjoyed?

About Jessica

Jessica Strawser is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, North America’s leading publication for aspiring and working writers since 1920. Her debut novel, Almost Missed You, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017 and has garnered accolades from Chris Bohjalian, Adriana Trigiani, Garth Stein and others.

She loves connecting with fellow writers (and readers) at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor and on Twitter @jessicastrawser.

35 comments to Acting Out of Character

  • Jessica, you just sold me your book – I LOVE this concept, and want to incorporate it into a story – It can make a riveting read, but I’ll bet it’s not easy to construct.

    Any tips on how to do that?

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      It’s a fantastic book, Laura. Get it, get it, get it!!!!!! 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Laura! (And you too, Orly!) Fortunately for us all, once you start looking for this technique, there’s no shortage of examples of novels that use it to some degree (think, too, of an antagonist who suddenly shows compassion just when you’re expecting the opposite).

      The thing about raising the question “But why?” is that you then, of course, have to answer that in a 1) believable and 2) satisfying way. I think our aim is to reach for an answer that raises even MORE interesting questions, but then put it to a litmus test re: those two points before we get too carried away. It’s never possible to satisfy every single reader, of course, but thinking back to some of my own favorite reads, it’s often the ones where I found myself debating the ending with friends that had the most staying power for me.

  • MM Jaye

    Absolutely loved the personal reference. Had me grinning … in the office, and my colleague across asking me “what’s up?” as I do not usually grin at my screen when I work. See? I acted out of character, and she was curious. Case in point.

    The most interesting heroine I’ve created has been the one that acted completely out of character. She travelled to a remote Greek island in the dead of winter to start anew when, up to that point, she’d been watching her life from the sidelines. Every step she took was a struggle against herself, but [insert backstory] she had no other option. Yes, I had the most fun writing her.

    Great article!

    • Ha! I love your real-life example from today, and your on-the-page one too. You’re so right about this approach often being the most fun–and some of my favorite moments as a reader are when I can *feel* the author’s enthusiasm, commitment and joy between the lines. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for the kind words!

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      You made me laugh with that real-life example.

  • I remember Delilah! Boy, do I wish I’d heard that juicy ‘hot mic’ tidbit. You played it out so beautifully, I felt like I was there. Great writing advice! Your story intrigues me so I’ll have to check it out.

    • I wish you’d heard it too! I’m still dying to meet another human who heard that! And thanks for the kind words about my book: Still two months to go, but it’s available to add to your Goodreads shelf or for preorder. 🙂

  • Great story and a perfect example of what you’re talking about. I’m willing to bet you’ll get some pitches on this subject now. 😀 I have one character in my current WIP who is characterized for much of the book as someone who lets everything roll off her back, who never lets any situation get to her, and who is an excellent swimmer. And then when that character is found dead from drowning and the circumstances surrounding that tragedy begin to be uncovered, the people left behind must deal with two possibilities that are completely out of character–did she drown in an accident, which is almost unfathomable? Or was there intent there? And if so, how could she of all people be driven to suicide? The best part for me is that, as the writer, I am discovering the truth of what really happened along with the characters because I’m basically pantsing this aspect of the story. It’s not that I didn’t plot any of the story out first, but that I wanted to come upon the answer to this question in the writing.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Perfect post, Jessica! I’m deep in revisions on my next book and having so much fun finding out what my main character does that’s totally out of character.

  • Excellent tip, Jessica, and you’ve put it in such a way that several light bulbs went on in my head all at once. I’m planning the next book in my series, so naturally I considered how my MC could act out of character. The results, I concluded, would be potentially chaotic, and not necessarily in a fictionally good way. This in turn provided more fodder for analysis: if having my MC act out of character will create a hot mess that might do more harm than good, does that indicate a problem with the character and/or the series? That she is too limited? On the other hand, if a strong secondary character acts out of character, that would be a story energizer but still keep the MC–and the reader–in the driver’s seat, even if the route is a confusing and perilous one.

    There. Done thinking “aloud.” Thanks, Jessica! 🙂

    • Secondaries and even antagonists are often the ticket in these cases, I think. Happy to have helped recharge some of those bulbs, and thanks for taking the time to say so! Sounds like you’re in an exciting phase with the next book: Best of luck!

  • This concept brought me back to my own younger years and listening to the radio. I’d fantasize and imagine scenarios for each song, but get so caught up in the setting and characters (what I was wearing, what he looked like), I’d fall asleep before anything really happened! Funny how my early writing years were much of the same… too much description! But this leads me to a story idea that’s been on my idea shelf since I was 13 years old. A father of 6 walks out on his “perfect” family one night in a rage of anger. His oldest daughter (at 15) considers him her best friend at the time and has a lot of questions that end up not getting answered until years later. Meanwhile, she has to learn to accept that he’s gone, adjust to her mother’s reaction of moving the family across the country for a so-called job, and work through forgiving her father despite the prospect of never seeing him again.

  • Delilah was my favorite to listen to on night trips driving home from Nashville. Loved your post. I have some ‘PEOPLE’ in my latest book that need to do what you talked about today. They are too just what you might expect and bland so far.

  • Anne Clermont

    What a great reminder for what grabs our attention and really makes us keep reading (or listening!) Thank you for this great article!

  • Denise McInerney

    Ooh, aha moment! I love this past, Jessica, thank you for sharing. “think, too, of an antagonist who suddenly shows compassion just when you’re expecting the opposite.” You’ve put into simple words an aspect that I’ve noted in books and screenplays that resonated deeply, but I couldn’t explain exactly why. My husband and I listen to Delilah every Friday night on our way back from the grocery story but sadly, we missed the broadcast that you mentioned. 🙂 Looking forward to your book in March.

  • colleen

    Ha ha. Great illustration and wonderful advice. I haven’t heard it put quite that clearly before. I’ll be looking for when I can use it. Thank you!

  • Debra Richmond

    Every guest blogger here adds another essential device to my toolbox. Thank you \. (That’s the relaxed exclamation point that my students are now using to fall between . and !) I think my character is doing exactly what you described, but I didn’t recognize it and would not have considered how to exploit his out-of-character behavior, until now! (Full exclamation point)

  • Thanks for the kind words, Debra! And I’m with Meg and Laura in learning a new device from you, too. I’ve always thought that exclamation points need to relax a little… 😉

  • What a huge compliment. Thank you, thank you, and best of luck with your WIP!

  • Oh I loved this. I used to listen to Delilah too. Her show was a favorite! This concept of acting out of character sparked my muse. Thanks! @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

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