Broken Characters: to thine own self be true

by rahego under Creative Commons
by rahego under Creative Commons

In a previous post, I identified broken plot and broken characters as reasons that I feel stories often fail. Last time I talked about plot, so today, I’ll talk about broken characters.

By broken characters, I mean characters that are not internally consistent. That doesn’t mean that all stories should focus on character. Read Characters & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card for more about his famous MICE quotient.

You can have characters that do not grow or change, and do not even have a big role. However, they can still be broken, and they can still ruin a story.

By internally consistent I mean, given the situation that a character is in, and their background, they should act in a plausible way. It doesn’t mean they have to be rational, but it does mean their actions flow logically from who they are and what happens to them. For instance, if an armed police officer witnesses a crime, they will call it in, or try to stop it. Of course, the officer can cower in fear, but then you’ll have to give an explanation for this at some point in the story. Characters can be completely irrational, but you have to establish them as such.

An example

Often, this is not done, and the character acts a certain way to move the plot in a certain direction. A prime example of complete failure of character is Star Wars Episode III. I’ve already written how much I despise this movie, probably because I loved the original Star Wars four to six so much.

Episode three is filled with inconsistent character actions, but Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi stand out in my mind. Spoiler warning, I am going to ruin some of the movie for you, if you haven’t seen it yet in the past decade.

So, the movie shows the rise of the Sith emperor Palpatine, and the fall of the Jedi knights. At about two thirds of the movie, Yoda and Obi Wan return to the ransacked Jedi temple and learn that Palpatine is a Sith who has taken over the Galactic Republic and killed all the Jedi with his new apprentice, Darth Vader. Their initial reaction? Let’s split up and try to take down the two most powerful evil beings in the galaxy separately… yeah, smart plan. So, Yoda gets his ass handed to him, and decides to flee with his tail between his legs. Obi Wan actually beats Darth Vader, but alas, decides that he loves his fallen apprentice too much to kill him, and prefers to let him die a slow agonizing death. To top it off, the two Jedi decide to throw in the towel and let the galaxy rot…

If you disregard the later Star Wars episodes for a second, you can see that this makes absolutely no sense. Jedi are completely dedicated to protect the galaxy from the Sith and the Dark Side, and then they decide to just give up? Of course, this had to happen to allow for the pre-existing later movies, but that’s no excuse.

It is possible to pull something like this off, but the story should have spent a lot of effort in destroying these character’s beliefs. If the Jedi were outlawed throughout the galaxy, and effort was taken to show Obi Wan and Yoda spat out and hunted down by the entire galactic populace, then maybe, it could have worked. But the way it was handled, the characters were completely implausible, and came across as weak cowards.

How to fix broken characters

So, when you look at your story, in each scene, for each decision a character makes, you have to ask yourself: is this logical for this character given the background and information they have at this point?

If not, you have to either rewrite the events, or go back and find a way to make what you want to happen logical for that character.

Yes, you want your story to go a certain way, but if you’re a good writer, you find a plausible way to make it happen, and you don’t turn a character into a walking-talking plot-device.

If you’re lucky, your characters will even rebel by themselves. Many writers complain about this, and it is annoying, but listen to your characters, they know who they are, and will act accordingly.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands