Part of good storytelling is making the audience believe in the story, believe that the characters really existed, acting out events exactly as the author outlines them. This means everything the character says and does needs to be rooted in who the character is. An author must always be aware of why a character acts and reacts as they do, so that audiences never stop to consider the invisible hand behind the curtain.
Attitude & Perspective
In general a character’s behavior falls into two categories; acting, and reacting. Most characters have an initial reaction, impulsive, like a knee jerking. Either the world is moving too quickly, or the character’s own emotions are so strong they can’t stop themselves. In both cases the character acts without serious thought.
Instead they rely on assumptions, formed from a combination of past experiences and generally held opinions. For example, Nora often receives unwanted attention at work because she’s attractive. So when David asks if she’s hungry, she assumes that’s a thinly veiled attempt to date her, and promptly rejects the offer.
One of the most pronounced examples of attitude and perspective comes in the form of career military personnel. A person who spends years in combat situations will frequently assume any loud noise or sudden surprise is a threat, and respond accordingly.
Reactions are quick, short lived choices based on attitude and perspective. Actions are based on motives, the conscious decision to work towards a goal. Most characters have various goals, with a hierarchy based on a combination of importance, difficulty, and rewards/consequences. Everyday goals can include eating food, having fun, and enjoying the company of others. Challenging goals can include achieving a new rank or level of proficiency, traveling to faraway places, and accumulating wealth. When in doubt it’s best to root a character in common motives: survival, security/safety/control, freedom, meaning/purpose, fear, anger, love, gratitude, joy/fun, boredom, or desire/longing.
One of the most common ways to change a character is by changing some aspect of their motives; change the difficulty by adding/removing obstacles, or offering an alternative, forcing the character(s) to reevaluate their options.
For example, in Lord of the Rings, the group is traveling to Mordor. Along the way they try to go over a mountain, but find it too challenging. This forces them to reconsider a previously rejected alternative, going through a mine.
A more complex character change would be to change a character’s motive for pursuing a goal, or reconsider whether the goal is the right choice. In Lord of the Rings, Boromir spends most of the book debating whether “this” is the right choice, culminating in a powerful scene near the end of the book.
The greater the change in a character, the more time the story needs to spend building up to that change.
Avoid Plot Puppeteering
Part of good storytelling is helping audiences forget that they’re enjoying a work of fiction. They want to feel as if the story and the characters are all real. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that everything a character says and does makes sense for that character.
If you find yourself in a situation where the plot and character conflict, change one. For example, the plot might require a character to go down into the basement, but this character has an established aversion to the basement, they never go down there. The solution is to either change the character into someone who would go down, change the scene and not have the character go, or add additional motives to overcome their aversion.
Perhaps the power goes out, someone else went down and now they’re hurt, and/or an intruder is breaking in and the basement is the only safe place to hide. Eventually the opposing forces justify the character acting contrary to their nature, though at a certain point this can still feel like an author manipulating the story. If that happens, return to the three possibilities; change the character, change the scene, or change the motive(s).