Out-of-character Moments In Fiction

What does it mean to act ‘out-of-character’? I mean, they’re fictional, right? However they act must be who they are. Yet audiences and critics will sometimes feel that a fictional creation is acting out of character.

This is because audiences are influenced by the folk psychology that humans behave somewhat consistently. That’s not the case. But fiction teaches us this. You can probably give an example of a book from your childhood in which a quirky/different character is encouraged to embrace their true self. The underlying assumption: That they even have a true self. If not the trope of the mask, the “I know your true name trope” works, too.

Likewise, the storytelling trope of the mask, much utilised in transgression comedies and thrillers, suggest that our true selves exist; if not immediately visible, they are hidden just below the surface. Very few narratives exist in which a character finds happiness at the end of the story while continuing to wear the mask.

I was once reading through a list which described common problems in short story submissions, by someone who reads a lot of amateur short stories. One plot they see a lot: A calm, sensible, normal character suddenly snaps. Maybe the main character is on a train, another passenger is smacking gum, the main character gets really annoyed with this, perhaps they’re angry about something else; they transfer the violence and whop the other passenger over the head. The end.

  1. It’s not saying much of interest about humankind.
  2. It’s been done.
  3. (Supposedly) People just don’t work like that. A character who commits a violent act will have a history of violence. This needs to be foreshadowed, otherwise the reader will feel they wouldn’t really act like that.

The example above is an extreme example of characterisation and plotting done badly, but you’ll see it in milder form if you hang around writing groups long enough.

But focusing on the third problem, is it really the case that there are ‘restrained people’ vs. ‘violent people’?  Is there no situation on earth where you, personally, would not snap?


Why does an audience does expect fictional characters to have some sort of ‘enduring character’? Writers are influenced equally by the following folk psychology:

That people have personality traits (introvert, timid, etc.) as well as virtues (honesty, courage, etc.) or vices (the seven deadly sins, etc.). In folk psychology, these features are assumed to be stable over time and across situations. Proverbs in all languages testify to this assumption:

  • Who tells one lie will tell a hundred.
  • Who lies also steals.
  • Who steals an egg will steal an ox.
  • Who keeps faith in small matters, does so in large ones.
  • Who is caught red-handed once will always be distrusted.

If folk psychology is right, predicting and explaining behaviour should be easy. A single action will reveal an underlying trait or disposition and allow us to predict behaviour on an indefinite number of other occasions when the disposition could manifest itself.


But of course, it’s not possible to predict behaviour. If it were, we’d live in a Minority Report society.

Folk psychology is demonstrably false.

also John Elster

All sorts of psychological experiments have been carried out to show that humans are not rational, though we do aim for rationality. I won’t summarise those here. Basically, we are irrational humans with unstable traits and little in the way of enduring character. Psychologists know that the best predictor of how a human will behave is not what sort of ‘character’ they have, but rather what sort of situation they are placed in.

Unfortunately, this idea is really hard to rely upon when writing narrative. Audiences have a more Manichaen view of human nature than most would care to admit.

The audience expects characters to have ‘character’. (I mean, it’s right there in the word.) Any storyteller thereby faces a balancing act: The creation of characters whose traits are believably stable, but not so stable as to seem unrealistic.


This is where the humanities overlap with sociological science:

  1. The acts and utterances of fictional characters have to be intelligible. [Intelligible = it has to make sense to the audience. See its subcategories below.]
  2. The author has to meet the twin requirements of fullness and parsimony. By ‘fullness’, a writer might talk about ’rounded’ characterisation. We often hear about that. The concept of parsimony is less explored among writers. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. It must ‘feel like it fits’. Don’t overcomplicate your character motivations, in other words.
  3. The work must flow downhill, minimizing the appeal to accidents and coincidences. Coincidences that happen in real life often don’t work in fiction. This is a well-known phenomenon among writers. If you tell an experienced critique partner that your story is ‘based on something that happened in real life’ their heart may sink. So often, real life incidents, no matter how interesting, don’t work as fiction because they contain events that seem like contrivances when presented as fiction. When unbelievable turning points are pointed out, the beginner writer may say, “But it really happened!” as if that counts for anything. Elster encourages writers to respect the fact that readers are not finely attuned to probability theory. ‘The overall plausibility of a scenario depends much more on the plausibility of its weakest links than on the number of links. I believe the author should respect this particular quirk of the readers, since it prevents him from resorting to facile but unlikely coincidences.’
  4. The work must offer a psychologically gratifying pattern of the buildup and resolution of tension. This blog is all about the aforementioned ‘psychologically gratifying pattern’. You can find it explained here.

Elster also explains that intelligibility can be absolute or relative. Intelligibility can also be global or local.

  • Absolute intelligibility: Can any human being behave in this way?
  • Relative global intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this particular fictional person consistent with the overall character the author has already set up?
  • Relative local intelligibility: Is the behaviour of this fictional person consistent with earlier behaviour the author has already set up?

The requirements of absolute and of relative local intelligibility are crucial constraints on authorial rationality. But relative global intelligibility is not a constraint. In fact, if an author lets relative global intelligibility constrain the work, it may be seen by the audience as an aesthetic flaw.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be fully paid up social scientists in order to understand all this, because TV Tropes explains it in layman’s terms:

Real people will not always behave in the most expected way, and indeed, it is unrealistic to expect a fictional character to behave any more consistently. Depending on the general circumstances, immediate situation, and who is around, the mildest individual can just snap.

Out-of-character Moments

Some types of stories require a hero who acts uniformly bravely, as in a thriller, or uniformly comically, as in a sit-com.

So-called literary fiction can overcome the audience expectation that character is global. Dostoyevsky is known as an author who disregarded the folk psychology of character consistency. His characters change their behaviour depending on the situation they are in, which is the most ‘real’ depiction of humanity available to us in a work of fiction.

Can you think of more modern stories in which characters behave according to the situation rather than according to some folk psychological concept of global character?

The Expectation Of Character Consistency In Children’s Literature

It’s unlikely your first example is from the world of children’s literature. Audiences may have less time for local versus global intelligibility in stories for children:

Consistency implies that a literary character cannot have contradictory traits. Neither can characters behave in a manner incompatible with what has already been revealed about them, in description, actions, or the narrator’s comments. Normally we place a higher demand for consistency on literary [fictional] characters than on real people. Since children’s literature is generally didactic, we place still higher demands for consistency on children’s literature characters. Characters must be understood from the text alone; therefore, any radical deviation in the way a character is presented will be perceived by readers as an artistic flaw.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

Folk psychology is something we must resist, in our real lives and in our reactions to fiction, because it is hugely liberating to understand that situations rather than enduring characteristics are key to behaviour. It is especially important when coming to grips with the situations of historically marginalised groups.


Header photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

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