Know What You Are Buying: Breaking Character

The hazard in breaking character, a taboo in performing arts, is in that it draws your audience out of the story. Common wisdom advises that prose should be transparent, so why then do authors choose to break character? Counter intuitively, I have found breaking character to be a useful tool in characterization. The trick lies in doing it well -- knowing what you are buying and understanding the price you pay.

I once had a stoic character react to a stressful situation by slapping another character. All my betas advised me to fix the break, but one reader was different. “Unless you did it on purpose,” he wrote, “in which case, it’s pretty brilliant, actually.” Joe knew that I intentionally broke character and that the break signified deeper emotional turmoil rather than being an oversight. This lead me to my first rule, when you break character, you trade against your reader’s trust and suspension of disbelief.

There have been studies that demonstrated that humans find beauty in symmetry. Think of a fine rug with a beautiful pattern. Some owners would return the rug if they were to find a single flaw in the pattern, but others would think the flaw adds interest and character to the piece. Whether the deviation is interesting or irritating will largely depend on the execution of the break and the personality of the reader. This is my second rule, I can never be sure if a specific break in character will be taken well until it is read.

As a third rule, I have found that the price of a character break depends on the genre and expectations of the reader. For instance, the revelation that the little old lady down the street is a murderer would be out of place in a romantic comedy, but might work well in a procedural crime novel. As such, the price for such a break would be much higher in the comedy than in the thriller. Readers of thrillers not only appreciate large twists, but have come to expect them from their novels.

A character break can also be used to reveal character depth. For instance, a cold hearted criminal might have a soft side for abused children and may act “out of character” when he thinks he isn’t observed. Once you’ve shown this side of your character, however, there is no ignoring it and pretending it never happened. The characterization is cannon. This is the final rule I will discuss in this post. Character breaks are cheaper when they are interesting, consistent and add to the characterization.

When I was a newbie in my improve troupe, I was strongly discouraged from breaking character. At first, I didn’t understand, but followed the advice. As I gained more stage experience, I came to realize why it was forbidden as a young actor. Breaking character is expensive. Until I understood what I was buying for that expense, I could not break character well.


2 Responses

  1. I wish I had read this a year ago– I would have worried less when I had a character act ‘out of character’ (a quiet, timid girl who slapped her best friend because she was beyond frustrated.) It was actually suggested to me to have her slap her friend–and she and I were equally horrified at the thought. 🙂 But I went with it, and have had 3 reviewers tell me her ensuing meltdown was one of their favorite parts of the book. You never know what will touch your readers– even bad things can work in a good way.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      I’m glad you found the post helpful and I hope that it’ll help you with your writing in the future. Why did you end up keeping the scene you spoke of? What back then, before this post, helped you overcome your worry about breaking character? The feedback of your readers or just some instinct that what you had your character do was right for that character, in that situation, at that time? I’m glad that it worked out for you as well as it did. I hope you stop by more often, it’s great to hear from a fellow writer who seems to be struggling with the same questions of craft that I do.

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