When Can A Character Act Out Of Character?

Posted: March 4, 2013 in Reflections, Writing
Tags: ,

Last night I was reading a manga, and something happened in it that I wanted to discuss with you (I doubt anyone will mind if I give a few spoilers to this manga, I’m the only guy I know who reads all the same stuff as myself):

In this manga, a character who’d been characterized so far as a sweet, polite young lady from an upper class background suddenly showed up at a battle on the highway riding a motorcycle and wearing a skintight, black leather riding outfit, recorded some damning evidence on her phone, and then started acting like she knew more about some of the futuristic weapons than the more veteran fighters did, and had the proof to back up the claim when she joined the battle. I was like, “Okay, she’s barely been a part of this war for a day; how the heck does she know more about the weapons than the veterans who’ve been fighting since the beginning of the manga? More importantly, why is she dressed like the T-Mobile spokesperson and acting like Tomb Raider meets Japanese schoolgirl when so far she’s been nothing like that?”

So I read on, and it’s revealed that this particular character has a very unexpected and very scary connection to the main villain of the series, a mad doctor character who set the two sides in the war against each other without really taking part in the war himself (now that’s evil and amazing at the same time). Not only that, but because she had to hide that connection between the villain and herself, the super-sweet personality she’d been showing so far had all been an act meant to fool everyone. And it worked!

It made me think, “This character had been acting against her character type at the beginning of this scene, but as soon as this revelation makes it seem totally within character.” In fact, it made me do a lot of thinking about characters in fiction acting unlike themselves. Sure, I’ve seen characters start as good but later go down the path of darkness, but there’s been vestiges of the good in them in how they act while being evil or how they rationalize their evil deeds. Anakin Skywalker said he brought peace to the galaxy in Episode III though he did it by murder, the Assassin from the movie Serenity was using evil means to create a perfect world, and other such examples show how good shines through the evil.

I’ve only seen a few of these unexpected-character-changes in my life though, and each time I’ve seen them, it’s always been alongside a major revelation, such as the character was working for the antagonist the whole time, or perhaps she’s from the future and is having some difficulties distinguishing reality from her psychosis, or something along those lines. And usually after the reader learns this shocking revelation, the main character of the story does too, which can lead to them becoming enemies, friends, or a whole bunch of other combinations, and it usually stays that way until the end of the story, when the conflict is finally resolved. In the case of the manga I was reading, I’d say it’s a fair chance there’s going to be an ongoing tension between this character and the main character for a while, especially since the character with the connection to the villain is supposed to be a good guy and is the object of the main character’s affections (that’s a sad betrayal waiting to happen).

Have you ever seen this sort of character revelation? If so, where have you seen it and how did you react?

Don’t e shy, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to try and find out when the next volume of that manga comes out. I mean seriously, I have to know how the main character reacts to finding out his crush is related to the main villain! It’s going to bug me for a while.

  1. karmicangel says:

    Ahh, see this is where THE WIRE lost me (not sure if you’ve watched that series, but I encourage you to)… there is a character named Lester who in the last season did something so completely out of character that I actually stopped believing the writers in the series. I think you have to be super-careful about changing something fundamental in a character if you have not at least seeded SOMETHING about it before. It made me not want to watch anymore because everytime Lester was on the screen, I just didn’t feel connected to him anymore.. I felt abandoned, like I’d been lied to, or like the writers ignored the man they had created because they just needed the storyline to go in a different direction.

    • You know, now that I think of it, they did something similar in the last couple episodes of “Dollhouse” with a character who was a former cop. My sister and I thought that since the show was ending after two seasons, the writers just wanted something to make the show memorable for viewers, but it’s similar to your WIRE predicament.

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