When a character doesn’t react exactly as you think they should, or as consistently as you think they should (eg, not sad enough) – something just feels off – but you can’t pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, is asking a beta/friend/whoever really the only way to fix it? (if it needs fixing). This is beyond “how do you portray”, I know what it’s like to be in my MC’s shoes. So why can’t I stand back and examine it, to see what’s missing/wrong? I feel completely inept but I can’t figure why.


Character Not “Behaving” As Expected

As much as our characters can seem to come to life and develop their own free will, the reality is that you’re the one in control of your character’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and actions. If your character isn’t behaving the way you think they should based on the character and situation you’e laid out, that’s an issue with you as the writer and not with the character. So what’s going on there? There are a few possibilities:

1) You’re focusing on an imagined behavior, not a behavior that makes sense with what you’ve laid out. Quite often when we’re brainstorming a story or scene, it seems to unfold in our mind as though from a movie we once saw. We can often “see” and “hear” things in crisp detail, and sometimes our brains go off the rails a little, imagining things that won’t necessarily work when we go to write the actual scene. Sometimes in this brainstorming, we imagine a character’s behavior in a particular moment and that gets filed away somewhere. Then, when you actually get to writing that scene or something evolved from it, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re still imagining that initial image of the scene, even if you don’t realize it. And if whatever you’d initially imagined no longer jives with what you’ve laid out in the story, it can make you feel like things are off when they’re not.

2) The behavior you’re portraying doesn’t make sense with what you’ve laid out for the character and/or situation. Conversely, sometimes the problem isn’t with what you initially imagined but with what you actually wrote. Sometimes as we write, we tend to get carried away, sometimes drawing upon our own emotions about a particular situation or even inadvertently channeling another character–either in your WIP, a past project, or even a favorite character in a current read or TV show. We’re usually not even aware we’re doing it, but if something feels off to you, this may be why.

3) You’re under prepared to write this scene, even if you’ve been in this character’s shoes before.

As writers, and people-in-general, we tend to put a little too much stock in having been in another person’s shoes. We think, “I was homeless for three weeks, so I know exactly how every homeless person thinks and feels.” And, of course, that isn’t the case at all, because how one feels in a given situation, what they think and how they behave, that is all specific to the individual. It isn’t the same for everyone. So unless your MC is strongly based on you and your specific experience, having been in their shoes doesn’t mean you know everything about how they would behave in a given situation. You’ll have to take what you know of the experience from your own perspective, then filter that through the lens of your character’s personal experience, their personality, their past, their specific situation–all the things you’ve laid out for them.

So, the long and the short of it is, no–you can’t rely on a beta reader/friend/etc. to tell you what’s wrong with your character’s reaction or behavior in a particular moment of your story. You know your character better than anyone, because you’re the one that gave them life on the page. Everything about who they are what they think, how they feel, what they’ve experienced, and how they behave all came from you, so while someone else could certainly tell you that something feels off–or why, from their own personal experience, something isn’t quite right–you’re the only one who can deconstruct your character to look at all the parts and see what it is that’s not working.

Make sure you’re not fixated on an earlier imagination of the scene; try reading back a few chapters to get in your character’s head, then try reimagining the scene again. If you haven’t already, try drawing out a little character map that highlights important personality traits, experiences, and other things that may factor into how your character reacts or behaves in a given moment. Then draw a little map of the scene or moment in question and note all the elements that would play into your character’s reaction. Then, look between both maps to start filtering the scene elements through your character’s personal lens. Maybe one of the scene elements you’ve noted is “blood everywhere.” And maybe one of the character elements you’ve noted is “worked in an emergency room for twelve years.” If you filter “blood everywhere” through “worked in an emergency room for twelve years,” the logical conclusion is that your character will probably have a more modulated reaction to seeing blood than the average person. They’ve seen a lot of it before, they know that volume and severity don’t always go hand-in-hand, and they will have an instant set of experiences to recall of injuries that might produce that amount of blood. But then again, if one of the scene elements you’ve noted is “daughter’s bedroom,” that’s going to further complicate how your character responds to this scene. If this is their daughter’s bedroom, there are great personal stakes in play, and that would likely create a more emotional reaction.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to figure out what’s right for this character’s reaction based on everything you’ve laid out for the character’s personality, general behavior, past experiences, and the specific circumstances. And if you’ve been in your character’s shoes, you’ll use your own experience as a foundation, but you still need to take your character’s specific details into consideration. You’ll have to spend some time really thinking about it, doing some plotting, trying things and discarding them if they don’t work. But you’ll get there. You have the power to make this what you think it should be, and you will. 🙂

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