Character Consistency And When To Break It
A realistic character should be consistent. If you were to put them in the same situation, while they were in the same mood, everyday they should react in more or less the same way. However this does not mean that characters have to be predictable and dull. There are times when a character will realistically act or react in a way that is not usually normal for them, and that is where the intriguing nature of a character comes from.
For a break in character consistency to mean anything first you need to set up the core personality of the character, this is their nature under normal circumstances, and gives the audience an expectation about how they will act.
The core personality of a character is made up from their world view, attitudes and ethics. You can illustrate their core personality to the audience with the way the character interacts with their surroundings. If you have created a liberal, caring character then write them as characters who speak to others with respect and joins in with local fundraising efforts. Put them in a number of situations and they should still act in a liberal, caring manner.
Familiarity may breed contempt but consistency breeds comfort. Allow your audiences to grow comfortable with your characters. Keep them at a certain level of consistency. Unless you’re writing for a bipolar character there should be no wild mood swings, at least until the situation warrants it.
Having an idea about a character’s consistencies also helps when trying to flesh out the character. You know your character is a liberal, caring type - what type of job would you expect them to hold? Perhaps they’re a nurse or a social worker. How did they pick up these character traits, was it through their upbringing, a jarring event or something else? Liberal is often associated with creativity, maybe your character plays guitar, enjoys painting or writing poetry.
See how a certain set of characteristics also implies other qualities. A serial killer often has some kind of sexual malfunction. A woman who grew up in the country might be a very proficient horse rider. A bodybuilder could have an excellent knowledge of human biology.
One of the best ways to create a character is to come up with a few consistencies about their nature and the brainstorm around them. In the space of ten minutes you can go from a blank sheet of paper to having dozens of interesting and yet consistent qualities that character may have.
Breaking The Consistency
Having a consistent character in your screenplay already puts you ahead of the curve. If you can add a few paradoxes and let the character break certain consistencies at certain times then you have a fascinating, true to life character. It’s my belief that even the nicest, sweetest person could murder if the situation is right. You need to find the right sequence of events to justify this sort of character evolution though.
“Insanity is a perfectly natural reaction to an unreasonable situation.”
Insanity takes many forms. Sometimes is can be wild and reckless, other times calm and calculating. It can last seconds or a lifetime. Going back to the nice, sweet character for a moment, it can be extraordinarily easy to turn them into a killer. If they were to walk into their home and find their partner shot on the floor, their children tied up with the unaware perpetrator’s back turned and a gun nearby then it would be a perfectly natural reaction to shoot them.
Breaking character consistency is a lot to do with putting them in that unreasonable situation. Paradoxes are different. When you first meet someone you quickly draw a picture of them and their background. However when you get to know them better they’ll throw the book out the window and reveal something you’d never imagined about them.
I worked with a man in an administrative job who seemed a perfect fit with everything you’d expect of someone in that role. But as I got to know him better I discovered he’d led quite the wild life. He’d been a heavy partier, been married had a child and then divorced, moved to the other end of the country, and operated a music theatre. He turned out to be a fascinating character.
Paradoxes don’t have to make sense but it helps if there’s some element of logic to them. Remember that one of the keys to writing is conflict, try and create that conflict within the character. That same liberal, caring character we talked about earlier could be pro death penalty. The reason? They’ve been a victim of crime a number of times throughout their life.
By adding paradoxes and breaking the consistency in a consistent character you can create a true to life person the audience can relate to and emphasis with. And that’s always the main goal in creating any character.