Understanding Why Your Characters Act The Way They Do

When you get angry, you’re likely to offer a snappy retort. When you’re in pain, maybe you cry. A friend shunning you can make you afraid to try new friendships. If you’re someone who likes to laugh, you’ll probably joke around with people that are close to you.

Virtually every single thing we do and say has a reason behind it. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, our actions are influenced by what we experience around us.

If there are reasons behind how we act, why shouldn’t there be reasons for our character’s actions?

In order to appear as real people to the reader, characters must think and operate like real people. Characters should never do something just to do it. There must always be some sort of reason that acts as a driving force for what they do. Sometimes it’ll be something really little, other times it’ll be long and involved. If you don’t have any reason for making your character act a certain way, then it’s usually smart to throw that action into the trash.

For example, let’s say you just want some drama, and so you decide your protagonist gets mad and yells at another character. But why? Are they exhausted in the moment, and so are more prone to snap? Are they under a lot of stress and this was the last straw? Did the other character say something that offended the first or stirred up bad memories? Did the actions of the other character resemble something negative the protagonist has experienced? You have to understand what drove your MC to raise his or her voice, especially if it’s a character that is usually quiet and amiable.

Simply put, you shouldn’t make a character act a certain way just because you want them to.

Your character doesn’t like the woods. Is it because they hate to get dirty, or is it because they’re scared of wild animals? Your character seems afraid to get close to people. Are they that way due to an absent parent or have they been hurt by someone they cared about? Perhaps they’re terrified of the ocean or of swimming. Have they nearly drowned sometime in the past? Have they had a relative or friend that has died or been injured by an ocean creature such as a shark? Maybe they love helping people. Is it because they’ve needed help before? Perhaps their parents instilled a love of serving in them.

A main character that I write was abandoned as a child, and as a result, he’s grown into a very arrogant young man (to compensate for his lack of self-worth). He also tries to put himself in control over as many situations as he can, so he can be the one to leave, to decide that someone else isn’t worth it. Even his flirtatiousness comes from a deep-seated need and desire to feel wanted for once in his life.

I could have just decided that he was flirty and arrogant and that was it (and I probably had done that at the start), but do you see how when there are layers and psychological catalysts behind his behavior, he becomes three-dimensional?

I could go on forever about why understanding your character’s behavior is necessary, but right now you might be asking how you get started. Here are some questions you can ask yourself while trying to determine the reasons behind your character’s actions.

  • Are they acting out of character right now? If so, what would drive them to act so different? (Be careful, though. When a character acts out of line, it’s more often than not a bad thing.)
  • What is the mental effect this scene is having on my character? Is it positive, negative?
  • If I were acting like this, it’d probably be because…
  • If I were in this situation, I would do/feel… (Remember, your character won’t always do what you would do, but thinking about the reasons for your behavior can be a good start to contemplating theirs)
  • What past experiences could possibly influence my character’s feelings/decisions in this situation? Why?
  • Does this scene bring up any memories for my character? Are they bad or good?

Today, take some time to understand why your characters are acting the way they do – and give them viable reasons for responding in their unique ways.

Now it’s your turn! What steps do you take to understand your characters’ actions? Have you ever had to alter a scene to properly be a catalyst for what you wanted a character to do? Any other thoughts? Do tell!

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