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I don’t know if you follow the superhero world much, but there was a recent upset when fans found out that Captain America, the epitome of the American spirit, was actually a bad guy in disguise all along. Captain would never! explains on her blog why readers get upset when characters that they have invested in act in a way that is, well, out of character. And yes, I realize that there will probably be a plot where Captain America will turn out to be the good guy again, but he is so iconic in his values that even pretending to be a bad guy is out of his character.
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Character Development Is a Two-Edged Sword
Within the writing community, there are just as many articles (if not more) about developing great characters as there are about creating interesting plots. We see blog posts debating how likable a character needs to be to interest a reader, other posts sharing techniques for evoking reader empathy, and still other posts instructing us on methods for showing a character’s emotional arc, etc., etc.
We know as readers that even the best-plotted book will suffer if the protagonist isn’t at least compelling. So as writers, we do everything we can to make readers invested in our characters in some way.
An invested reader is a happy reader, right?
Well, maybe not. Let’s take a look at the other side of character development.
The Danger of Out-of-Character Behavior
A couple of months ago, I wrote about how our genre promises certain elements to readers. And if our genre alone creates expectations in readers, it’s a safe bet that our characters do as well.
As we develop our characters, we establish expectations in the minds of our readers for how that character will act and react in the future. Readers sense their intelligence, what they value or fear, their moral code, etc.
Those expectations are important to understand because insults like “Too Stupid To Live” are more likely when our characterization is broken. We don’t usually see that insult flung at characters who do stupid things in character.
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