You’re Not the Same*

An interesting comment exchange with Bill, at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about the way characters act. Well-developed fictional characters have patterns in the ways they behave. For example, if a character tends to be shy, we wouldn’t expect that character to suggest a karaoke night or to be comfortable asking someone out on a date. In fact, if a character doesn’t behave consistently, a lot of readers don’t like it (e.g. ‘She would never do that. This just isn’t credible.).

That said, though, there are examples in crime fiction where characters don’t behave at all the way we might expect. For some readers, that takes away from a story. For others, it depends on why the character behaves so differently.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renault, whose body is found on a golf course next to his home. There are several suspects, and more than one motive. One person who seems to be mixed up in the case is a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. She’s smart enough to know that that she is a suspect, and one evening, she goes to the hotel where Poirot and Hastings are staying. She and Hastings are having a conversation when Poirot unexpectedly comes in. Very uncharacteristically, Hastings urges ‘Cinderella’ to leave, and prevents Poirot from going after her. That causes a rift between the two, which is also unusual. But there’s a very clear reason Hastings acts the way he does: he’s in love. He doesn’t want ‘Cinderella’ to go to prison, and he wants to protect her as much as he can. It’s quite a departure from the way Hastings usually interacts with Poirot, and it’s interesting to see how Christie worked it.

Any fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe can tell you that he is a gourmand. He may weigh, as Archie Goodwin puts it, a seventh of a ton, but he has no interest in dieting, and even less in exercising. And yet, in Not Quite Dead Enough, he does both. WW II is going on, and Wolfe wants to help his adopted country. This in itself isn’t inconsistent; Wolfe mentions more than once in the series that he is grateful for the opportunities that becoming a US citizen has granted him. What’s surprising is that Wolfe and his chef Fritz Brenner are training to be solders. Wolfe is on a strict diet, and he’s engaging in a great deal of exercise, and that’s enough to shock Archie Goodwin when he finds out. Goodwin himself has enlisted in the military, and has been assigned to do counterintelligence. The military brass want Wolfe to be involved in counterintelligence, too, but Wolfe wants to be a soldier, and nothing will persuade him otherwise. Then, there’s a murder. A friend of Archie’s sometime-girlfriend Lily Rowan has been killed, and Archie’s a suspect. If anything can persuade Wolfe to do what he does best – detect – it’s a new case…

Michael Redhill (AKA Inger Ash Wolfe) has created an interesting protagonist in the person of Detective Inspector (DI) Hazel Micallef, who is based in Port Dundas, Ontario. She has her faults and weaknesses, as we all do. But although she can be prickly, she is a balanced, mature adult and a skilled police detective. She’s also no longer young, and she’s gained some wisdom over the years. She doesn’t generally behave in a rash way, although she’s not always a stickler for every rule. More or less, she’s a steady hand, as you might say. But that’s not the case in A Door in the River. That novel begins with the discovery of the body of local hardware store owner Henry Wiest. Micallef and her team are looking into that matter when the victim’s wife is attacked and robbed. The investigation leads to a reserve that houses a casino – and to some very dark things that are going on. When Micallef finds out the truth, she behaves in some very uncharacteristic ways. I don’t want to say too much about it, for fear of spoilers. But suffice it to say that it’s not the Hazel Micallef that many fans had come to like very much.

There are also some interesting cases of characters who have the opportunity to do something that’s very much a departure. In those instances, some of the tension comes as the character works out whether or not to act very differently. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now called the Navajo Nation Police). He follows many of the traditional ways of his people; in the first few novels, he’s even studying to be a ya’taali – a singer/healer. His actions are consistent both with his personal beliefs and his commitment to be the best police officer that he can be. Everything changes, though, when he falls in love with Mary Landon, a white teacher who works on the Reservation. The two are contemplating a life together, but that would mean not living on the Reservation. He would end up taking a position with the FBI or some other police agency, and having to live and act in ways that aren’t consistent with his beliefs. It’s a difficult challenge for Chee to face.

Human beings may not always be entirely predictable, but most of us have patterns in the ways we act and think. The same is true of fictional characters. So, when a character behaves in a way that is very different from what you’d think, it can be jarring. In fact, it can pull a reader out of a story, unless the reason for the change is convincing.

Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, you’ll want to go visit Bill’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary await you there.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ I’m Looking Through You.

14 thoughts on “You’re Not the Same*

  1. I usually find it a good thing when a character behaves uncharacteristically, assuming there is a good reason for it. It changes up things, makes them more interesting. Of the authors you have featured here, I have read Stout and Christie extensively, and read only one by Inger Ash Wolfe and Hillerman. I wonder if how much you have read by an author or in a series makes a difference.


    1. Oh, that’s such a good question, Tracy! I would suspect that our knowledge of an author’s work probably does really impact how we see the characters. If you haven’t read much of Stout, for instance, you might not be aware of how much of a departure a diet is for Nero Wolfe. That’s a strong point, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’ And I think you’re exactly right that the reason for uncharacteristic actions is really important. If a character doesn’t act normally (whatever that is), it needs to be for a credible reason if it’s to work in the story.


  2. Margot: Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them. I recall Wolfe going on a diet. While initially skeptical Stout was wrote a convincing tale that made the weight loss credible. I admit being glad that Wolfe did not feel compelled to continue dieting after the story concluded. I remember well Hazel’s uncharacteristic actions at the end of A Door in the River. I was frustrated not because of her personal action but because was unprofessional and she had worked so hard to be recognized for her professionalism. I wrote to the author advising of my unease.


    1. I remember your reaction to A Door in the River, Bill, and that you wrote to the author about your frustration. I’m glad that you did, too, and that you got a response. I like it when authors respond to readers’ questions and concerns. That connection’s important in my opinion. You have a good point about Hazel’s unprofessionalism, too. It’s certainly not consistent with her focus on doing well in her career, and honestly, it didn’t feel credible to me. Interesting how Wolfe’s dieting actually did work in Not Quite Dead Enough. Stout did do that well, I though, although, between you and me, I don’t think that one was Stout’s best story. Still, he made that angle work.


  3. Interesting discussion and I do need to get back to reading some Hillerman. No examples as such, but I think extreme stress/worry/anxiety over a situation – which can be at the heart of many a story – causes people to behave out of character.


    1. Thanks, Col, and I think it’s always worth (re)reading Hillerman. You make a well-taken point about stress, too. When people are stressed/frightened/etc., they do behave differently; perhaps it’s a survival mechanism? When something basic like one’s safety or survival is at stake, a person might do anything.


  4. This is a great topic Margot! Of course it is important for writers to keep their characters consistent in their values but everyone acts inconsistently from time to time, particularly when two or more of their values are in conflict. That is why Wolfe diets – because his value to do the right thing usurps his value supporting his gourmandizing. I like full characters and full characters have to have inconsistencies or they are simply cardboard figures. I’ve been rereading Hillerman lately and do enjoy the struggles Chee goes through when romance beckons. I must read Redhill as I know Dundas a bit so it would make it fun.


    1. Oh, I do hope you’ll get the chance to read the Hazel Micallef novels, Jan! Among many other things, I find it really refreshing to have a protagonist who’s not – uh – twenty anymore. She’s a good, strong character, too, with faults aches and pains, but with some real redeeming qualities, too. And if you’re a bit familiar with Dundas, that makes it even better. You make a really well-taken point about people acting inconsistently, especially when their values are in conflict. I think that happens to all of us, and it’s why we aren’t completely predictable. And to be quite honest, I’m not sure I’d want people to be entirely predictable. Certainly I don’t want fictional characters that I read about or create to be that way.


  5. Perfect examples of characters going rogue, Margot! I could hardly believe Chee would even consider leaving the reservation, but Hillerman did a masterful job of convincing me to go along for the ride. Love is a plausible reason for change.


    1. Thanks, Sue! I agree with you that Hillerman really did make it believable that Chee might leave the reservation. His relationship with Mary Landon made sense, and so did his thoughts about making her a priority. To me, it just shows that when characters do act, well, out of character, there has to be a credible reason for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I definitely get grumpy when a character acts out of character, so to speak, unless there’s a very good reason for it. I think that’s why I dislike follow-on novels usually – it’s rare indeed for a new author to get the character just the way the original did. For example, there is no way under any circumstances for any reason whatsoever in this world or indeed the universe that Sherlock Holmes would ever have got MARRIED!!!! Gah! 😉


    1. So, FictionFan, how do you feel about follow-on novels? No need to hold back on my account… 😉 In all seriousness, I agree with you that characters are best if they act consistently. Sometimes there is a reason – a very good one – for a character to behave differently. But normally, I much prefer it if characters behave consistently. And, yes, it is very hard for one author to get another author’s character just right. That’s part of why most follow-ons really do not engage me.

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  7. In one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories, there are reports of a character who has very regular habits – and then one night he breaks them, does different things. Some people conclude that this shows he was upset or distressed by something. But Poirot reaches a different conclusion: he says that when you are upset, that’s exactly when you take comfort in doing the usual thing without thinking about it. So there must be some other explanation for this character’s behaviour. I often thing about this logical reasoning…


    1. Oh, yes, of course, Moira! I know the story you mean, and you’re absolutely right. Poirot reasons in a really interesting way here, and it does point to another explanation for what happens. I’m so glad you added that story in; it had slipped my mind. That’s actually an interesting topic in itself – how we rely on the comfort of our routine when something is wrong. Hm…..


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