There is nothing more frustrating than when someone critiques your work and says, “Your character wouldn’t do that!” or “Your character wouldn’t say that!”
I must admit, hearing that totally grates on me. How can anyone possibly tell ME what my character wouldn’t do or say? Hello. It is my character. I made them up and they do what I tell them to do. End of story.
I admit, this is something I’m not happy to hear. But I’m in a critique group for a reason and I need to keep an open mind. So even though I don’t initially agree with this statement, I do try to take a closer look at the problem. Although I don’t fully understand the concept of other people telling me what my character would or would not do, I do realize my critique partners aren’t totally wrong in their assessment. Very often what they’ve pointed out, is an area where my voice has come through instead of the character’s. Either the adult me has made an appearance or the 80’s teenager from my past has honed in on my contemporary protagonist. Usually it is a quick fix and I move on. But again, this is an issue that I couldn’t fully comprehend. Until recently.
A few weeks ago I was reading a book that nearly had me pulling my hair out. It was a sequel to another book I had read and enjoyed. I can honestly say I was pretty invested in the main character. Enough that I liked her and wanted to read more about her. However, in book two she consistently did things that totally made no sense to me. At least no sense in the terms of who she was or who I had perceived her to be. I really struggled to finish the book and found myself yelling at it often. “No! Why would you do that?” I think my husband was ready to have me committed. And it hit me. This is what my critique partners were talking about. I was finally able to wrap my brain around the concept of being true to your characters.
It is quite an easy concept if you think about it. For example, if your character is afraid of dogs then it is obvious she is not going to pet someone’s dog in passing or hang out in front of the pet store window fawning over the puppies. In fact, she will probably cross to the other side of the street when confronted by a dog walker and may even steer clear of the block where the pet store is located.
If your story has an "a-ha" moment where the character overcomes her fear of dogs, it must come at a price. For example, your character can not just suddenly decide she likes dogs now and happy, happy, joy, joy she heads to the pet store to get one. Something has to happen to change her opinion. And it has to be big. You can’t just have some guy with a nice dog come up to her and say, “Look, not all dogs bite. Pet mine and you’ll see.” It has to be something significant and it has to ring true to your character; her fears and her personality. A life threatening situation might come in handy for this example. What if a rescue dog saved her from a flash flood or a burning building? But even so, it can’t be easy. She can’t simply overcome her fear of the dog in order to be rescued. You’d need to show that her fear of the rising water or deadly flames has become greater than her fear of the dog. This isn’t easy to do and should impose a lot of inner as well as outer conflict. The situation must get more dire. (Outer conflict) Flames and smoke choke her. Parts of the building is collapsing all around. Meanwhile, she is struggling with herself. Should she trust the darn dog? (Inner conflict.) Finally, the situation comes down to a do or die moment where she makes up her mind to take her chances on the dog who of course, pulls her to safety.
I realize the above example is pretty easy and straightforward. The places in your manuscript where you might find yourself being less than true to your characters will probably be more subtle. But whether your dishonesty is big, like my example, or small, like a morsel of your own voice shining through, an invested reader will still pick up on it. And if they lose faith in your character, they will lose faith in you too. An unhappy audience doesn’t bode well for selling books. You can take that to the bank but leave your dog at home.