What Do You Look for in Character Code Consistency?

Yahoo Image Search (D&D Alignment Chart)

Yahoo Image Search (D&D Alignment Chart)

You ever read a story and the character does something that seems out of place?  Maybe the noble hero flat out killed someone for insulting him.  Perhaps the villain laid waste to an entire town and left the school alone even though he swore every man, woman, and child would die.  There are various reasons this can happen, but it can really throw a reader off.  These abrupt and isolated changes of moral alignment can break a book if done at the major climax.  This is why an author has to always remember the essence of a character and their experiences.

Though it can always go down the drain if the reader has a different perspective and mindset for the hero.  For example, I once got into a debate with someone over Spider-Man.  He maintained that it was ridiculous for Spidey to avoid killing his enemies because dead villains are no longer a threat.  At least outside of comics, but you know what he means.  My argument was that it simply wasn’t in Spider-Man’s nature to willingly kill his enemy and doing so would break his established character.  If he did then he would have to show grief or something to build a bridge to a new personality or to get back to the old one with a new scar.  So, you see how a reader can demand an abrupt change of moral alignment because it makes sense for their perception.

This week I’m going to talk about three areas that a sudden change irks me: violence, romantic relationships, and loyalty.  So I’m trying really hard not to dive into these areas right now.

What do people think about this topic?  Can you think of any books, movies, or shows where a character breaks their own moral code with no hesitation or consequences?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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37 Responses to What Do You Look for in Character Code Consistency?

  1. K. A. Brace says:

    The flaw that makes them real. >KB

    Like

  2. K. A. Brace says:

    Reblogged this on The Mirror Obscura and commented:
    Though not a fantasy lit. fan I thought this a valid question for a character in any kind of writing. >KB

    Like

  3. “I once got into a debate with someone over Spider-Man…”

    I am quite delighted to discover that I am not the only one. There is something quite irrational about engaging in a debate death match over the alleged behavior of a fictional character.

    When reading, I love characters that surprise me, that do something unexpected, but it has to be congruent with their character and circumstances. If they are going to do something unexpected, I need clues that I can go back and read that will back it up. It’s kind of fun to realize the author had that in mind all along, I just didn’t see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Foreshadowing definitely helps and creates some rereadability. Even a character mentioning that they fear to be put in a certain situation denotes that it can go either way.

      It’s funny how character behavior debates tend to revolve almost exclusively on violence too. Maybe we’re too used to our heroes killing bad guys without a second thought like the 80’s action movies.

      Like

  4. M. Zane McClellan says:

    read this a lot on “How To’s”. I’m in the middle of Sol Stein’s, “On Writing”. The thing is that people do things out of character at times. My humble opinion (and I am far from an expert) as long as it doesn’t disturb the identity or the essence of the character, for the reader, no big deal. Only the reader can make that call.

    Like

  5. melissajanda says:

    I’m sure I’ve read a story where a character does something that doesn’t seem to fit but none come to mind. I do think that a hero with flaws and a villain who cares about someone or something is more interesting.

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    • True and flaws are fine if established. What I’m thinking of are the sudden changes of character that come with no warning. I’m hoping I explain this better throughout the week. Basically, take a character that speaks about not killing an enemy and then does so in the grand finale without a second thought.

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      • melissajanda says:

        I get where you’re going now. I can see how this would lead the reader to say, WTF? Actions taken in the latter part of the story typically reveal a character’s true nature (character arc). I’m looking forward to your posts on the subject.

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      • I hope I make sense. I tried to factor in how each reader is different, so things might get muddled.

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  6. L.S. Engler says:

    This reminds me a little of the debate surrounding the Batman comic The Killing Joke (don’t click if you don’t want spoilers) and has always sparked some interesting thoughts for me about Batman in the same ilk of your Spider-Man discussion. Is a move like this out of character? I think, overall, if it’s just done flippantly and randomly, then yes. However, one of the best things that can happen with a character is when they have to cross a threshold for whatever reason that makes them challenge their place in their prescribed “alignment.” The thing the pushes a good character to do something evil or a bad character to do something righteous is what great stories are made out of, if they’re done right and with reason.

    Besides, realistic characters won’t easily fit into these archetypes, because realistic people aren’t so easily distinguished. Anyone who knows me would probably place me in the “good” category of these alignments, but I recently took a quiz that placed me rather firmly as “neutral evil.” So I’ve got sides of both, just as anyone probably would (either that, or I’m very good at hiding my evil nature from others, including myself. MWA HA HA).

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    • Funny that you mention Batman because I was thinking of the second Nolan movie earlier. Without spoiling, the villain he lets live and the villain he kills doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. A lot of the ending didn’t make any sense, but that’s besides the point.

      The alignments are rather strict and don’t allow for much in the way of flexibility. At least when I played the game. Yet, I think it is realistic for a person to have some type of consistent code when it comes to morality. That’s where somethings go wrong in stories. A character will be made to break the code solely to suit a plot line, which can wreck the character. One should be careful and have some type of repercussions if such a thing occurs.

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  7. Characters who act out of character drive me BONKERS. I have no issue with a character being absolutely off the rails crazy, but they have to be crazy consistently. I have no issue with a remorseless killer slaughtering everyone in his path, but he can’t suddenly fall in love with the first pretty girl to spend more than five minutes in his company and decide to give up killing for good.

    Trying to think of a story with wildly inconsistent characters … well, one that comes to mind is the TV show Once Upon a Time. Some of the characters — specifically the Evil Queen — are all over the map in an extremely inconsistent fashion. It drives me nuts. Or the recent Game of Thrones episode. I won’t say what I’m irritated about, but it has to do with Jaime Lannister acting incredibly out of character. Argh.

    Like

    • That remorseless killer definitely needs a learning curve in that situation. Maybe many of the sudden events that we see are caused by the writer opting for shock value. That seems to be a big thing.

      I saw a few articles about the Jaime Lannister incident. I don’t watch the show, but I have enough friends who mentioned it. That seems to be an issue of bad book adaptation too.

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      • Definitely. Evil characters can do as much evil as they want. But if the character is clearly started on a redemption arc, and then does something randomly evil that completely goes against the values it’s already been established that he has … argh!

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      • I’d say maybe they’re going to kill him off, but I get the sense that many fans of the series have resigned themselves to a gradual massacre. At least many of the ones I talk to.

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  8. Therin Knite says:

    I haven’t come across any wildly out of character actions any time recently (that I remember), but I do note the occasional action that doesn’t quite “fit” with how I perceived the character. A lot of times, I find that OOC-ness tends to be more subtle, something that requires a bit of thought to notice. And, of course, those sorts of “subtle” issues are the most difficult for a writer to notice, especially when the writer might perceive a character in a slightly different way than the reader.

    Writing “people” is hard, especially over the course of several books. Sometimes we slip up a bit. Occasionally, we slip up…more than “a bit.”

    Like

    • A series definitely adds a dimension of difficulty because you have to grow the character through more events. Minor slips might be inevitable after a few books, especially after a ‘time passes’ period. That can open the door for an author to change a character’s personality rather drastically and explain it solely through exposition.

      Like

  9. Oloriel says:

    I think it’s about the reader’s character as well. If you compare it with real life, people can do something unexpected and out of their character for nothing at any given day or situation. It depends on you and me how outraged, happy,puzzled etc we will be because of it.
    For example, I watch “True Blood” Now, SPOILERS AHEAD. In one season, the main character kills a woman because she just killed her best friend. She is on the same day joined by the womans husband/ex husband (they just divorced were-shifter style). They have been together since they were teens, guy’s biggest love bla bla soulmates, emphasized during whole show. But since he had a little crush on the main character, and she got drunk, they proceed to make out.
    At this moment, this situation,felt completely out of character. because,you know, she just killed the person you loved so much your entire life, but who cares, BOOBs. You proceed to stick a tongue in her throat and look like you dont even care your wife is dead etc. It was done and writen in a way where I jsut saw it as propostreous.
    But,a different person might not think so.

    Like

    • I’ve only seen through Season 4, so I’m not sure of the characters you’re talking about. Not completely anyway. It’s funny how Premium Channel shows will throw nudity and violence out in almost random intervals. I watch Da Vinci’s Demons and there have been a few times that I wonder why two characters are having sex when something bigger is going on or they had no spark to set things off.

      It might be ‘easier’ to rationalize a stumble in sexual/relationship codes because we’ve become used to hearing about such mistakes. There’s also the ‘I was drunk’ excuse that gets used a lot in stories. With violence, it’s a lot harder to rationalize a break in the code. You need an acceptable trigger if the person hasn’t shown any signs of violent behavior or the mentality to take a life.

      Like

  10. I don’t necessarily have a bad example, but House of Cards is a show with good examples to follow. Every single character, especially Frank and Claire Underwood have motivations and actions broken down to an exact science. Even the moments where I think something out-of-character just happened, I look closely and realize that the writers just set up even more motivation and action to come in the future.

    Like

  11. Kirsten says:

    This post really makes you think. I have a question about the most recent Superman movie. A lot of people freaked out because Superman killed someone in it. (She reveals her ignorance with her next comment) Has he ever done that before? To me it didn’t seem like he had a choice if he wanted to save the innocent people…

    Like

    • I read once that he was a lethal hero when he began and was turned into more of a boy scout later on. Looking it up there was a point in the comics where he executed General Zod with green kryptonite. Just type in ‘has Superman ever killed anyone’ and you’ll get quite a few hits. Doomsday comes up too.

      Many comic heroes have killed by accident or they were forced to do so. People who don’t read the comics tend to forget this, so they flip out when it gets shown in another medium.

      Like

  12. I kind of like this idea, especially if it happens as a cliffhanger at the end. What a potentially great way of leading into the next movie or book.

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  13. One of the ironies is that, in real life people can behave erratically or in complicated ways and we know that’s just how some people are… But in writing we want characters to be completely consistent throughout the story. We want fiction to make more sense than life, in other words.

    What’s important for writers is maintain a character arc in which all turns play a part. So a good character can fall from grace or a wicked character can find redemption if there’s some way for readers to follow the arc.

    Like

    • I wonder about the erratic behavior in reality. There’s usually a cause behind it. I’ve yet to hear of a sudden departure from one’s previous behavior for no apparent reason. At the very least, a mental condition is involved even if it was previously undiagnosed. I think a fictional character can do an abrupt change and then be revealed as having something like this. Without that reason, it seems pointless even in real life, which can dehumanize a person.

      Like

  14. seeker says:

    The musical play Jesus Christ Superstar. I did not see JC breaking any rules in that movie.

    Like

  15. simon7banks says:

    It makes a character much more interesting if (s)he acts out of apparent character. It can set up stresses for the character – or it can reveal a side we haven’t seen. All real people have such sides! But a reason does need to be given – not necessarily at the time.

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    • That reason is a key component, but I think some aftermath is needed too. Breaking of a code is a heavy thing even in reality and it leads to a new mentality. A few readers have suggested I have some of my heroes flat out kill people that anger them even though that isn’t in their personality. If it does happen then they can’t stay the same character like I’ve seen in a few other stories.

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