My crit partner (and fellow Sister in Scribe) Kristi's excellent post on characters acting out of character got me thinking. While it's true that sometimes characters do something they normally wouldn't for a good reason, it's also true that sometimes we writers make our characters do things they know they shouldn't do, for no good reason at all. Most of the time, if we pay attention, our characters will tell us exactly that, it's up to us to listen and heed their warning.
We've all done it - had some great plot twist, or specific event that we needed to have happen no matter what. We made our characters get there, ignoring their protests along the way. What do I mean? How about an example!
Say you have a smart, feisty character, let's call her Veronica. Veronica is trying to solve the mystery of who killed her best friend. So far Veronica has done some sneaky spy-like investigating, racked up a bunch of clues, and run from a creepy guy who seemed to want to kill her too. Now it's time for the big reveal/fight for her life climax that you envisioned when you started this story. It starts when Veronica gets a phone call. A mysterious, very creepy, man, tells her to come to the woods alone at midnight and he will give her the evidence she needs to find out who killed her friend and put him in jail. After the call, Veronica's inner monologue goes something like this.
I have a bad feeling about that phone call. Only those stupid girls with big boobs and high heels in horror movies went out to the woods alone. He's probably going to kill me. I'm only 5'1", I don't have a weapon, and my cell phone doesn't get a signal out there. I know that if I go I'm as good as dead. I don't know why I don't call Logan to go out there with me, or why I wait until midnight and go out there by myself, but I do.
It sounds ridiculous doesn't it? As a reader you're wondering why would she be so stupid? Veronica is smart, resourceful and yet she's going to do something so out of character that even she recognizes it's a cliche and has no idea why she's doing it all for the sake of getting to the big action showdown sequence.
When your character says they don't know why they're doing something, or points out how cliche their actions are pay attention! It's your subconscious telling you that this plot point doesn't work. It means you're cutting corners, and cheating your readers out of a much more intense and exciting story.
In the example above, you would need to go back and ask yourself, Veronica's too smart to go just for a vague promise of information, so what would be enough to get her out there on her own? Have the caller hold her boyfriend hostage and threaten to kill him if she brings the police? Or if there's nothing that would get her out there by herself, what smart, resourceful thing would she do to protect herself? Notify the police and have them help her set up a sting?
With either of these options, you could still get that action-packed information reveal you'd been dreaming about, and you would have the added bonus of having your character act believably which always makes for a more satisfying story.
Don't get me wrong, this is not the same as a character not knowing why they feel a certain way. That goes along with Kristi's post. An action coming from an emotion, whether the character understands that emotion or not, is authentic. And when I say "no good reason" I don't mean the reason has to sensible, only that it has to make sense to the character. If Veronica wanted to go out to the woods by herself because she's a danger-junkie and loves the thrill, that would be fine. Stupid, but fine, as long as she knew that's why she was going and let us know that.
So the bottom line is, listen to your characters. If two of your characters have a conversation about how stupid something you're having them do is, chances are they (and your subconscious) are trying to tell you something.