Actors do it all the time (well, usually not really good actors, but…). During a performance, they forget to embody a role and, instead, are caught wandering or wondering “What’s my next line?” “Did I hit my spot” “Do these tears look real?” “Did I feed the dog this morning?” or any number of other random thoughts. On film, that’s the take that gets relegated to the cutting-room floor (at least we hope it does for the betterment of the movie). On stage, it’s that moment when the audience starts to squirm because the performance feels flat or the action wanes or the lines don’t seem to flow (or there’s silence where there shouldn’t be). It’s called “stepping out of character.”
It happens in books, too. It’s when a character does something not just unexpected, but contrary with how they have been portrayed throughout the novel. You know that moment – that’s when you put the book down and shout “She wouldn’t do that!”
When, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck ultimately decides that he’s going to help Jim escape even if it means he’ll go to hell, Mark Twain’s readers aren’t surprised – we know enough about Huck by that time to realize this is the only choice Huck would have made. By the time Ron Weasley mounts the bishop chess piece in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for that final game of Wizard’s Chess, we are well acquainted with flighty Ron’s fitness for that task. At the conclusion of Gone with the Wind, we have an exuberant whoop when smart and sassy Scarlett O’Hara finally realizes who her perfect mate should be – we, the readers, are only surprised that it took her so long to figure it out.
However, when Tom Booker of The Horse Whisperer fame stupidly steps in front of a raging horse, that’s completely out of whack with everything we’ve been lead to believe about this guy. When protective Jamie Fraser neglects to get positive proof that his wife has been safely escorted from prison by his arch nemesis – trusting that a man whom he has never trusted before will to the right thing – that is so contrary to the Jamie we’ve come to know and love, it is a shock to our system. “He wouldn’t do that!” we scream. That’s because Tom Booker and Jamie Fraser have stepped out of character.
When a writer has spent the good portion of a book convincing the readers that her character is brave/smart/kindly/(you fill in the blank), then has them suddenly acting gutless/stupid/mean/(you do the match), it’s jarring. And don’t let the author convince you it’s a plot twist. It’s not. It’s a character aberration.
I don’t mind when a novel’s coward leaves their comfort zone to perform an act of courage…but the author must first have convinced me that this character is unhappy with his weakness in the first place. A character’s heartfelt wish to be more than they have been in the past represents the difference between my acceptance of a contrary act or my yelling “He wouldn’t do that!” to the walls.