You’re Not Yourself Today

Most characters have a standard image of some sort: a set of mannerisms, habits and instincts that overall can be used as a way of signifying that particular character. Recognizing this and keeping to it is a good thing on its own, as it keeps you from having to worry about people complaining about a character going out of character for no particular reason, but there’s also another use for having a stable character pattern: getting emphasis out of the character breaking the pattern.

In some cases, slipping out of character at specific is supposed to signify to the audience that the character thus slipping is hiding something. Though what’s often being hidden is “I’m a threat to the main characters”, it isn’t always; nor is it even necessarily a plot-vital secret. One of my favorite characters to write comes across as this adorable little girl who thinks in straight lines and is hopelessly naive—at least, until she’s surrounded only by people she trusts and she can explain just what she thinks of the conspiracy du jour, who’s behind it, and what else they might be hiding.

On the other hand, some breaks in character are literally for emphasis of the importance of a specific situation, usually one where everything is going wrong in every possible way. As I once explained to one of my players when discussing this phenomenon and how it relates to subtle drama, “If I ever want to get ‘this is horrible and we’re all doomed’ across, I’m not going to have people shouting ‘No’ so loud you can hear them halfway across the world. I’ll just have Lirit quietly drop a four letter word or two.” (Lirit, of course, being someone who rarely even raises her voice, let alone uses taboo words.) When someone soft-spoken goes pound-the-table authoritative, when the pacifist agrees that someone needs to die or the indiscriminate killer that someone needs to live, when the joker stops laughing or the dead serious one starts, that’s almost invariably a sign that Something’s Going Down.

A break in character can, of course, show the character in question actually not being herself. Speculative fiction is particularly fond of these things, since there are so many ways it allows this to happen, ranging from possession and/or mind control to clones/simulacra/holograms/shapeshifter impostors. But even mundane fiction allows for masters of disguise, or for situations in which a character is being forced to act against her nature (see also hiding something).

Taking the gap a step further, a break in character might also be a way for the character experiencing it to tell that she’s not in the real world anymore, or at least not in the one she’s used to. How many times have you heard one saying “So-and-so didn’t [X]? This must be a dream?” Don’t limit yourself to dreams, though; this is also good for parallel universes, virtual realities (especially ones crafted specifically to make their victims want to stay in their illusions), and similar breaks from the reality to which a character is accustomed.

As you can see, the short-term break in character is an excellent tool for plot advancement or exposition. And to think, it only takes two elements: giving the character a recognizable and consistent pattern, and then deviating from it for a set time and with a particular goal. What’s not to like?

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