Writers should respect the personality of their characters.
Sometimes they don’t, especially if it’s a television show written by different writers, or a book series written over decades. In those cases, it feels as if you’re watching a sock puppet, with the hand of the writer clearly visible in their reactions.
This is a big no-no; writing should not smell of sock puppets.
What is it?
Like I wrote in the introduction, writers do not always respect the personalities of their characters. Have you ever been watching a television show and thought: “why is this character overreacting so much?” Or: “what? that character was saying the exact opposite a week ago.”
Often, this is the writer’s hand shining through. In television shows, the writers often differ from episode to episode, and while the same actors are playing the roles, they are saying lines written by different people. In books, part one of the series that you read last week, might be a decade older than part three – like with the Dark Tower series of fantasy novels, for example.
What happens is that the differences in personalities shines through. This is almost impossible to prevent. Often, the changes are subtle, and the better the writer, the less you’ll notice. Sometimes, though, the effect can be quite jarring. It can make an otherwise normal character appear to be bipolar or schizophrenic – and not intentionally. At its worst, it feels as if the writer is pushing a growth arc on a character just so they can.
When the behaviour of these characters starts to affect the plot, this can also lead to idiot plotting. Sock puppeting is not the same as idiot plotting, though, which is the characters acting against their nature to steer the plot in a certain direction. Sock puppeting is not a plot-based issue. It’s about the writer being too heavy-handed with the characters, revealing them as the person behind the curtain pulling the strings.
This isn’t the same as a Mary Sue / Mary Stu either. In that case the character might be consistent, he or she is just a stand-in for the writer.
The first season of the superhero fantasy show Arrow has a lot of flaky characters (I stopped watching after that). Almost all of them appear to be bipolar. From one episode to the next they go from extremely angry at each other, to best friends or lovers, and back. There is not a lot of actual conflict, just characters melodramatically over-reacting. That over-reacting is the hand of the writer, leaking through the sock puppet.
The Blacklist is worse, with the main character Liz and her love-hate relationship with Raymond Reddington. The love-hate flips from episode to episode, usually for flimsy reasons. Character actions that were no problem before are suddenly deemed insurmountable, and vice versa. Reddington keeps lying to her – when we learn the actual secrets I can’t understand why -, unless he wants to tell her things, then she doesn’t want to hear them.
Some spoilers for the Blacklist here! It struck me as slightly odd -to say the least- that the main character is an orphan pick-pocket turned FBI agent who is a rookie, but also a super-commando, but always misses when firing her gun when it is convenient and is a profiler but does not notice her way-too-muscular school-teacher husband is in fact a pyschotic killer.
She compensates by keeping said husband chained in a basement and helping to kill an innocent man, which she then covers up with her government powers. Liz has no actual personality. She is not a character, but a sock puppet for instigating plots revolving around James Spader – yes, I’m naming the actor here, because Raymond Reddington is also just a vehicle to make Spader’s acting shine.
Books have similar afflictions. I already mentioned the Dark Tower by Stephen King. This series was written over a span over more than twenty years. One thing this has resulted in is the main character Roland talking very differently in the last few books compared to the first. This is only a minor issue.
If you look at the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, you see more examples, mostly in the later books. The Vampire Armand, for instance, is a hedonistic renaissance vampire who suddenly decides to walk into the sun and die in the book Memnoch the Devil. David Talbot is an observer of the supernatural for a secret organization who does not want to bear the vampire’s curse. Later, however, his mind is moved into a younger man’s body, is turned, and becomes Lestat’s vampire lover. It feels as if somebody replaced the characters with different ones, but kept their names the same.
How to fix it
It depends a bit on the nature of the problem. Looking at the examples, the problems can be both stylistic, and motivational.
Stylistic, as in the character acting differently. This is much less a problem in television shows because the actors are usually the same, even if the writer is different. In books, this can be more visible. Characters should not suddenly speak differently, use different expressions, swear a lot less or more. During editing, check for this problem. If the way you’ve written the character change over time, edit this out. Unless, of course, you explain it, or hang a lantern on it: “well, John, you’ve certainly changed for the better, you’re hardly swearing any more.”
Motivational problems are different. The character acts in a way that doesn’t match how they acted earlier in the story. Again, this should either be explained or changed. Explaining why a character does something doesn’t have to be hard, and can sometimes be achieved with some simple foreshadowing. For example, if you want a character to refuse to talk to another character, simply put in a slight of one to the other earlier in the story. Another solution is using inner monologue of the character to explain their reasoning – although that requires them to be a viewpoint character.
In short, as a writer you should be respectful to your characters, unless you want to be exposed as the man or woman behind the curtain.