Be it in literature or film, when a character does something you don’t expect, it is a surreal experience. You always expect them to do something more fitting with who they are, but they sometimes go in the entirely opposite direction. I am going to go through these breaks in character with you and how you can write them.
Let’s jump into it!
Different Scenarios, Different Characters
First, it would be foolish of me to jump straight into the details without addressing the various scenarios. Of course, there are more than one. A break in character can be done for a many number of reasons. Yet, it is not too different from when a character does something we don’t understand and it is only till later we realize why.
In our stories, the characters know what they are doing. Our characters have their own values, their own rules. Even the side characters in their own mind believe they are the main characters in their own story. For that reason, there is more to them than the face-value traits.
Let us address the first scenario and the most common character-break.
Unexpected, but a Little Expected
Often in literature a character is presented with decision. What is more, some decisions have the characters hesitate, leaving the reader in suspense.
Let’s describe a scenario:
The character is presented with a choice. The first option is to sacrifice something of themselves for morally good reasons. The second option is to be spared or perhaps gain power for the morally bad reasons. The character, bad or good, chooses the option the protagonist or the antagonist doesn’t expect. The character chooses the opposite option the reader believes they would.
In this scenario we are left shocked for a moment. The sudden break in characters shocks other characters and perhaps the reader. Yet, in this scenario, the reader is left confused as to why the character chose the option they did.
Yet, in most cases, the writer structures the story in such a way that the reader isn’t entirely surprise. The character’s decision only brings out a certain value in themselves that the writer has hinted at up until the decision. Either through the character’s dialog, personality traits or even physical traits.
A reader instinctively knows these characters are unpredictable and if presented with an ultimatum, they know the character will do something disruptive. The question is, which way will they go? Will they follow their surface personality, or the personality that truly embodies them?
A Surprise with Reason
Once more, let’s take the same scenario. Yet, we are not working with a wild-card of a character. Instead, let’s work with a character who the reader believes with utmost certainty that they know who these characters it. The character is evil or good, no question. Yet, in this scenario, they choose an option not fitting.
Now, this character break is a lot simpler to write. The character who they believe they know so well can go one of two ways here.
One, the character can be truly what the reader thinks they are, good or bad. The reason they chose the option they did was truly for the benefit of their own side, good or bad. Think of it as a double-agent maneuver. The character is doing what they are doing for the benefit of their original side, but they can’t let anyone know that.
The second way is that the character has the reader among the other characters fooled about who they are. In this way they can be likened to an opportunist, who only really is involved with the side they are on until the other side benefits them.
In both situations, the character will surprise the reader and have reasons for doing so.
Next is the more dramatic break in character. The character is conflicted with their emotions and as such they will make a decision that doesn’t fit their character type.
Here is the scenario:
The character has an emotional attachment to something or someone. Someone on their side takes this something or someone away, or at the very least threatens it. The character is conflicted, deciding whether they should stay with their original side. Yet, the emotional pain is too much, causing a break in character.
Of course, this is a more powerful way to break a character. Perhaps they are forced to act the way they wouldn’t or change who they are, as they no longer believe they were right to begin with. An emotional break in character is unexpected, it has powerful reason and can shift a scene in favour of good or bad.
It is this character-break type that has been used a many number of times in different ways. Sometimes it can come as a surprise, or is planned by the other characters.
Of course, sometimes the character won’t break. Yet, that’s not what we will be discussing in this article.
We all like to think that our characters are heroes, that they would give their all for the right cause. Or perhaps, our villains so awful that they would die for the dark deeds. Yet, there are some characters who believe are so strong, but would change all that if it meant their survival.
Your character is presented with a choice. The character has to choose to do something out of character for their own survival, or perhaps they survived the mess of their own doing and decide to live differently to avoid the same mistakes.
In this scenario, the character is more realistic. Despite all their desires, the character chooses their own survival over anything else, including their values. In these cases the character will break and grow to become someone different. Perhaps they will go from a simple person to a cold, terrifying survivor. Or perhaps it is the reverse.
In this case, the character-break is also understandable and predictable. It won’t surprise the reader, as once a character reaches a mental epiphany that comes in this scenario, they change who they are. Despite being a common character-break, it is still one of the best to include in your novel.
That was a look into the character-breaks. The values of a character are truly tested when presented with a choice, obvious or not. That choice can be major, a pivotal scene in a plot, or it can flash by without anyone noticing, nor the character.
Yet, those who do notice it, can surprise the ones around them and the reader. When a character develops so fast that it changes the reader’s perspective on them, even for a moment, they break. Yet, it is so wonderful to read these scenes when they are delivered well.
I hope this article helps you in designing and delivering your own.
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!
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Matthew Dewey, Writer
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