Keeping characters in character

As you may know, I ride the train every day.  There is a conductor who I often come in contact with, let’s call him Jake Spinner.  The first time I saw him, he was chewing out a man who was smoking in the restroom.  He actually kicked the man off the train.  My first thought, “I don’t want to tick-off that guy.”  That was more than six months ago.

Jake has been nothing but nice in the last six months.  If he knows you use a monthly pass, then he can help you out on days you forgot it.  If you have forgotten your lunch money, he might offer some of his lunch or a loan of a few dollars.  Jake jokes with you.  Most importantly, he goes out of his way to let you know he remembers you.  Jake is an all-around great guy.  That was Jake until today.

Today, a senior citizen who was in good health (possibly better health than I am in) tried repeatedly to sit in the ‘senior seating.’  This particular train doesn’t have ‘senior seating,’ it has seating for the disabled and seating for everyone else – he wanted to sit in the disabled section.  Jake was having a hard time explaining that ‘the disabled section wasn’t a senior section’ to the elderly gentleman, and it quickly escalated.  The argument was classic – both scary and funny at the same time.

The elderly gentleman repeatedly said, “I understand way you are saying, but…” or “Your right, your right.  However…”

By the end of the argument, we were halfway to my stop.  For most of the second half of my trip, Jake was going up and down the aisle mumbling to himself – occasionally I could make out a word or two, like “senior seating.”  Jake never said “Hi” to me, he never checked my ticket, and he never even looked my way (at least not while I was watching).

If I had not witnessed the argument, then Jake’s behavior would have been out of character.  I would have wondered, “What happened?”  There would have been an information gap that would have nagged at me.  In real life, I can ask, “Hey Jake, something bothering you?”  In a book, I can’t.  I only see what the author presents to me.

To keep readers engaged in a story, an author has to keep characters in character.  A big part of that is making sure to include the events that shape the changes in their life.

About R. Garrett Wilson

I am a member of the Stanislaus World Builders writing group and have participated in the FSFW writing group. I have written one drama that was based on the book of Mark and performed at my church in 2007. My story, Journeyer, is published in Analog Magazine and a novelette, The Bakrra Encounter, in the FSFW 2010 anthology, I Dreamed a Crooked Dream. I also took part in the community novel project, Stanislaus Reads and Writes, and have a chapter in their novel, Ashes in a Teardrop. Beyond writing, I enjoy road trips, photography, woodworking, watching tennis and cycling, and reading.
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4 Responses to Keeping characters in character

  1. Very nice! You make an excellent point in an amusing story. I have a character who is acting up. I better apply this principle right away. :)

  2. Myrna Foster says:

    I’m actually doing this right now with my second draft. In the first draft, I had characters act or react certain ways because it felt right for the story. Now I have to make sure those actions and reactions make sense without info dumping.

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