Once we get to know a fictional character, especially if it’s a character in a series, we have certain expectations of that character, just as we have certain expectations of the real-life people we know. When a character acts very differently to what we’ve come to expect, that change can be jarring, and even pull a reader out of a story.
Of course, it’s a tricky balance, as are a lot of things in writing. If a character stays exactly the same throughout a series, then that character hasn’t grown and can even be a bit boring. On the other hand, characters who abruptly change the way they act without a very good reason don’t seem real, and it can be off-putting.
When we first meet Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in The Secret Adversary, they’re young, adventurous, and willing to take risks. They’re not danger-loving, but they do get involved in some dangerous situations. As the years go by, they become a bit more settled, especially as they raise their children. They don’t take quite as many risks, and they don’t seek out adventure. But their characters don’t completely change. Even as they get older, they’re very much interested in life, they’re curious, and they still like a bit of adventure. They have children (and grandchildren), and that adds a certain dimension to their characters, too. But they don’t radically change the people they are, and it’s interesting to see how Christie allowed them to evolve over time.
One of the featured characters in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series is Sergeant Edgar ‘Wieldy’ Wield. He arguably doesn’t play a significant role in the early novels in the series, but he starts to play more of a role in A Pinch of Snuff, the fifth Dalziel/Pascoe novel. He gives the impression of a rather unflappable, dependable colleague, and so he is. But as the series goes on and he develops more, we see that there are other sides to his character, and he becomes more sure of himself. Crucially, though, he doesn’t abruptly change the way he acts. He doesn’t, for instance, suddenly develop a hair-trigger temper. Rather, he evolves in believable ways. So, in some senses, he does act differently later in the series, but it’s not what you’d really call out of character – not out of the character he becomes.
Karin Fossum’s Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer is widowed, and at the beginning of the series, he is still facing his grief. It doesn’t prevent him from doing his job, and doing it well, but his focus is his work, and he’s not very much of a risk-taker otherwise. He’s content to drive the speed limit, and he keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes. Interestingly enough, and somewhat outside of his character, he does enjoy some skydiving. In fact, in He Who Fears the Wolf, he proposes a bet with his assistant, Jacob Skarre. If Sejer is right about the case they’re working, Skarre has to go skydiving with him. If Skarre is right, Sejer has to go with Skarre to The King’s Arms and get thoroughly drunk. The thought of being publicly drunk is enough to make Sejer shudder, and Skarre feels the same way about skydiving. It’s interesting to see that other side of Sejer’s character, given that he’s not a fan of risk-taking. But it does prepare the reader for Sejer’s evolution as the series goes on. He doesn’t become an extreme adventure-seeker, and he doesn’t start dating a lot of women. But he does learn to open up a little, and he does begin a relationship.
Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Much of the series is set in the small rural town of Three Pines; so, as the series goes on, readers get to know many of the people who live there, including artist Clara Morrow. As the series begins, Clara is not a ‘shrinking violet,’ but she doesn’t have a lot of confidence in herself, especially not as an artist. As the series goes on, she finds her artistic voice, and her work gets noticed. It’s a difficult change in some ways, as her husband, Peter, has always been considered the true artist in their family. But Clara learns to appreciate her own talent. She doesn’t radically change the way she acts, so her development isn’t jarring. She doesn’t, for instance, become an attention-seeking ‘prima donna,’ nor does she act arrogantly about her work. That would be out of character for her. Instead, her evolution is more subtle, and she behaves in ways that are consistent with who she is and what we’ve come to expect of her.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. He’s a Saskatoon-based former police officer who’s become a private investigator. As the series begins, he’s got some growing and maturing to do. He means well, but he’s not always ‘tuned in’ to others, and he can be oblivious, even to those who care about him. He’s a good person, though, and as the series goes on, he does mature. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t do dramatically different things as he grows. What’s more, his growth doesn’t happen magically. He faces loss and grief, and copes with the end of more than one relationship. He also faces seeing his friends go through difficult things. All of this has a maturing effect on Quant’s character, so that he doesn’t behave in completely unexpected ways. The changes he makes are not jarring.
And that’s the thing. When a character behaves in a completely unexpected way, this can jar the reader, and even lessen a story. At the same time, characters do (and readers want them to) grow and change as time goes by. The key is arguably to create characters who evolve in ways we can understand, and who behave in ways that make sense given where they are in their development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.