In real life, as we get to know people they become both more predictable and more surprising. On one hand, if we say or do certain things with certain people, we can expect laughter or teasing, anger or anxiety. On the other, if we say or do exactly the same things, but in a slightly different context or during an invisible mood, we can get exactly the opposite of what we were certain we could expect.
Why would living, breathing characters be any different? They’re not. Certain elements are a given. The protagonist can’t be pathetic or erratic; the antagonist can’t be inexplicably volatile or cruel to the point of comedy. Once that’s established, understanding of character grows continuously more complex, exactly as it does with real people.
Overly consistent characters are boring. Obviously inconsistent characters are unbelievable. How do you strike that perfect balance?
· Consider how characters are and aren’t like real people. To make this practical, start with your own novel. Are its characters like folks you know? How do they both parallel and deviate? Much more importantly, why do they parallel and deviate?
· Use causality. If people pretend they’re secure when they’re anything but, situations that breed insecurity will always breed certain behaviors in them. Decide what these are, both generally and for your own characters in particular. Then decide what you can use in your book, not only in situations you’ve already included but perhaps scenes you might develop.
· Check consistency. Maybe shy Sara always responds predictably whenever a man looks at her, much less flirts with her. If your goal is getting her married, Sara still has to freak—at least somewhat—when she meets Roger, even if he will turn out to be her soul mate.
· Mix it up. Maybe good old Roger is a wolf who turns sheepish at the sight of shy Sara. Good for him. Good for Sara. If you can convince your readers, better still. But it might be more credible if Sam goes on eyeing that long-legged blonde sunbathing in not much—even if he suspects he’s just met the woman who’ll change his life forever. And she’s not blonde.
· Capitalize on your knowledge of human nature. The next time a friend, loved one, or stranger astonishes you with behavior at a supermarket, party, or traffic light, take note. What makes sense? What doesn’t? Most importantly, what would you need to change to make this behavior make sense to your readers? Help them feel they know your characters. Help them forget that we all already secretly realize that no one can really know anyone. That’s for life—not fiction.
Tip: The great characters—the ones who endure for centuries—are both coherent and idiosyncratic. Just like everyone else. Almost.