When Characters Ring False

An important element of any story is the consistent, cohesive voice carried by each of the characters.  Just as we can hear characters when they say things against their established natures, it always sets the reader against the story.

The most offensive case in recent years comes in the form of Darth Vader.  Star Wars fans shudder in frustration just to think of the end of Revenge of the Sith where Vader rises in his armor for the first time.  His anguish leads to him crying out, “Nooo…”  While this meshes with the Hayden Christensen character, it doesn’t match at all with the cold assertiveness of the tradition David Prowse/James Earl Jones version of the villain.

In the original films, Vader possesses not only an understanding of the galaxy, but of the Force.  In the prequels, we aretold Vader is supposed to be these things, but we aren’t shown any real occasion where he even begins to understand.  He whines, he complains, he makes excuses.

The problem is that in the original films, Vader doesn’t make excuses, he kills anyone who tries to make excuses to him.  There’s no transition to this state of mind, George Lucas expects us to accept it.

I think audiences are more accepting of Ed Wood movies.

Let’s shift to a literary example.  Years ago, my first girlfriend convinced me to read Anne McCaffrey’s The Rowan.  For the first hundred pages, McCaffrey establishes the Rowan’s personality–she’s strong-willed, independent (though not by choice), her own woman.  She starts out as an orphaned child, so the story features her progression into adulthood, a level of careful construction through the text.

Then Jeff Raven shows up with his handsome looks and rogue charm.  At first, I liked him, he reminded me of Gambit from the X-Men.  Then he starts hooking up with the Rowan and his true colors come through.  His actions define his attitude toward the Rowan where she should always be ready to have sex, be barefoot, and in the kitchen; pregnant comes later.  This is my perception, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.

My expectation when I read early scenes with Jeff Raven was that he would be charming and likable, not stuck with an outdated mentality regarding women.  McCaffrey didn’t deliver on my expectations, which is fine, but she didn’t establish a character-based reason for the Rowan’s subservience, especially when that trait is the opposite of the Rowan’s defined personality.

The natural question at this point is “How do I make characters ring true?”

  • If something changes about a character explain it.
  • If a new trait goes against what the character has done or felt in the past, show the internal conflict.
  • Don’t make heroes with sexist, racist, etc. qualities. (Jeff Raven is one of the good guys.)
  • Putting flaws in a character is fine, so long as they make the character more realistic.
  • Don’t force characters to do or say things they wouldn’t do without a damn good reason.
  • Write characters intelligently. (It’s ok for characters to be smart and able to figure things out.)

Was there anything I missed?  If so, drop a line and let me know.  I’ve got to make my characters believable too.


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