Old Dogs…New Tricks

by Chantal Boudreau

A friend of mine recently posed the question whether or not characters should be predictable, and followed with the argument that if a character does do the unpredictable, it can jar a reader out of a story. You’ve already established that a character behaves a certain way, so having them act differently would just be wrong, right?

Not so fast.

Demanding that a character adhere to pre-established norms makes the assumption that character development ends once that character has been thoroughly introduced to the reader. We all should understand that that’s just not true. Aside from the fact that some people enjoy being unpredictable, even sticks-in-the-mud will do something out of the ordinary from time to time. You may know somebody quite well, yet see them transform gradually as they grow and mature. And how likely is it that a traumatic event or a life-altering experience will change the way a real person thinks or acts? The same thing ought to apply to fictional characters as well.

Not that I’m suggesting a character should suddenly behave completely out of character with no explanation or no transition. That would be jarring and frustrating to a reader, as my friend suggested, and create the kind of disconnect that may put someone off of a story. But a character can be motivated by emotion or circumstance to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. They also might be changed permanently as a result.

Not only can these changes occur, but considering the types of conflicts used as a foundation in fantasy fiction, you would expect circumstances to have some kind of lasting effect on characters. The battle-hardened veteran may be able to shrug things off, but what if your character is more of a reluctant type of hero, a younger person still green in the ways of the world or an older person who has spent most of their life sheltered behind a desk? With new demands and/or new opportunities comes the potential for change.

I can offer a couple of examples from my own tales where a particular character ventures into new aspects of persona in response to unusual or shocking circumstances. Burrell, a stout, middle-aged wizard introduced in “Magic University,” shows himself to be a bit of a yes-man with a mild case of the lazies, a somewhat cowardly nature, and a distaste for conflict. He isn’t exactly a man of action or the type of material heroes are typically made of, so when he is approached at the beginning of “Casualties of War” to venture into dangerous terrain for the sake of saving lives, it’s no surprise that he balks at the request.

But his part in the story doesn’t end there. While it isn’t in his nature to involve himself in that kind of precarious situation, he does feel concerned for his friends who are participating in the trek and guilty for not helping them. These feelings motivate him to do more than he typically would under ordinary circumstances. While he still can’t bring himself to follow the others into peril, he does what he can from home, setting aside his laziness and even his aversion to conflict to support what his friends are doing. He even shows a streak of leadership, inspiring others to join him. Several of the things he does are not actions that would be deemed predictable for that character, but they are fitting when all things are considered. By the end of the book, he is definitely a changed man.

A second example I have involves Crag-Climber, a character in my Snowy Barrens Trilogy. He begins the story as a bully with a follower mentality, second-in-command to Far-Runner who leads the band of rabble-rousers. He is brash, egotistical, and at times quite cruel, although more intelligent than Far-Runner’s other toadies. He is also insecure and doesn’t trust his own judgement enough to speak up when he disagrees with Far-Runner. This does not change even after they have segregated themselves as the splinter Tribe of the Wolf and Far-Runner’s mental stability begins to degrade. In fact, it takes an extreme and shocking event where Far-Runner kills a member of Crag-Climber’s family and Crag-Climber responds with violence of his own, before he finally stands up to the man he once considered his best friend.

Injured, Crag-Climber exiles himself from the Wolves, and almost dies from his wounds. It is only after he is rescued by others and is being nursed back to health that he finally gets a chance to reflect on his life, his choices and their consequences. He realizes he has made some terrible mistakes – that he should have taken a stance long before he did and that the reason he hadn’t was a matter of cowardice. He emerges from the experience a changed man, with a new patience, generosity of spirit and dedication to those he cares about. In a word, he has been humbled. He longs to redeem himself.

His actions after the incident differ greatly from those before. They are not what a reader would consider predictable, given his track-record. However, there is good cause for these differences, and even though the transition is more abrupt than with Burrell, it is appropriate in light of the circumstances.

I think it’s clear that I don’t feel it is necessary for a character’s behaviour to be predictable. In fact, sometimes I think the story calls for exactly the opposite. I believe that it is possible to teach an old dog…or an old wizard…or an old Wolf… new tricks, it’s just not all that simple. A writer is going to need a substantial carrot or stick to get that character to change his or her ways, and once they change there may be no going back.

What do you think?

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2 comments on “Old Dogs…New Tricks

  1. Great post, Chantal. Characters who don’t grow and change make for boring fiction, and ones who change suddenly can be jarring. Everyone changes, but it needs to make sense.

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