Build Strong Characters by Having Them Act Out of Character

Prizefighter en Mi Casa

Note: The English version of From Words to Brain is now available for $3.99 from Amazon. It used to be $5.20 (the dollar equivalent for the European price of 3.90 Euros), but my publisher has decided to set dollar prices independently so US customers aren't penalized by the weak dollar. See what kind of interesting issues arise when you sell ebooks internationally?

I've talked before about using first impressions to build strong characters. Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of this in The Hunger Games.

While first impressions are useful, there is a risk of creating two-dimensional characters if you stick only to the first impression. Nobody behaves the same way all the time. Sometimes having a character act completely opposite to a reader’s initial impression can create powerful dramatic effect. I found some great examples of this in Prizefighter en Mi Casa by EE Charlton-Trujillo. (Some spoilers to follow)

The book tells the story of Chula Sanchez, a 12-year-old Mexican girl in a South Texas town. Chula's big brother Richie is a jerk. He makes fun of her and ditches her on the way to school. When another girl beats Chula up in a cafeteria fight, Richie just looks on and shakes his head in disappointment.

But later, Chula and Richie find themselves running from the police. They get to a fence and Richie climbs over, but Chula is too scared. Instead of running away, Ritchie climbs back to help Chula. She escapes, but Richie doesn't make it over in time and gets arrested. It's a very powerful moment, when the older brother who’s been mean to Chula up to this point makes such a big sacrifice.

Charlton-Trujillo takes a similar approach with El Jefe, a prizefighter that comes to live with Chula's family. He's a frightening man -- enormous, strong, with one missing eye. Chula is terrified of him. But then she sees him comfort a disabled man. El Jefe holds the man’s hand as he cries and later prays over the man’s door with a gentleness that goes completely counter to his frightening appearance.

Of course, it won't work to have characters acting counter to a reader’s initial impression just for the heck of it. That would seem contrived. But when you're building your characters, you may want to ask the following questions.

1. What kind of first impression does does the character create? How would casual acquaintances describe him?

2. What type of circumstance would make him act contrary to that first impression? If he is normally even-tempered, what would make him blow up? If he usually loves people, in what circumstance would he withdraw?

The answers may bring both you and your readers closer to that character.

Can you think of any characters that convincingly display behaviors on opposite ends of a spectrum?


  1. Nice thoughts here. I particularly like what you say about the first impression not remaining static. If that first impression is of an important character and it stays the same, the writer hasn't been doing her job well.

  2. Good ideas here. It's made me think hard about the characters in my WIP.

  3. So if you look at it, you can set up an external character through the eyes of another, and by doing that, create a idea of him in the eyes of the reader. But the said character hides some of himself (for whatever reasons), and you only get to see the (surprising) reactions in situations where the character is forced to reveal them.

    And by doing this, you not only make the character seem more real, you can add a nice twist.

    Did I understand all that correctly?
    If I did, very useful. Thanks for the post.

  4. I just read Sarah Dessen's Along for the Ride and I think she uses this technique well. On the first page we see an email from the teenage protagonist's new stepmother. It's full of exclamation points and happy-fun-excitement and sounds like the "i"s should be dotted with hearts. The work of a bubblehead. But when we actually see her she's a harrowed, sleep-deprived mother of a newborn. The disparity sets up a conflict and gets you thinking that there might be more to this woman than you originally thought.