Saturday, January 26, 2008

Suicide Hill

This, ladies and gents, is the view from the top of looming mountain of death known as Suicide Hill.

Don’t be fooled by the picture. It goes down four stories in about twenty feet. Once at the bottom, the victim—sledder—has a few options. Bail and hope for the best? Ram the Music Building? Farthing Auditorium? Or attempt to steer into the 6 foot wide safety zone, where even then you have to stop quickly to avoid sailing off the loading dock?

It has claimed many broken legs and arms. A piano player broke her back and was unable to play again. A friend of mine will walk with a limp for the rest of his life, thanks to a complicated break. And once, long before we got here, a student cracked her skull, taking her life.

So clearly, this is a greatly desired location any time it snows. Idiotic frat boys and mildly-intoxicated music majors alike flock to the top of the hill, waiting their turn for the thirty-second RUSH.

My freshman year, a friend and I were walking out of the music building across the top of the hill. The crowd there was pretty amazing, and we stood to watch them for awhile.

People are IDIOTS.

Not only were they going down this gigantic mountain, they were piling as many people on a sled as possible, going down backwards, going down on lunch trays from the cafeteria. My friend and I laughed at their stupidity, then continued on about our way.

A little later, I came back. The huge crowd had dissipated, still leaving a few people around. Most of the people left were friends of mine. They cajoled, whined, complained, reasoned. Because they know me.

I’m the responsible one. I had been at college for a semester and never been to a single party. I always studied and practiced and never missed class or rehearsals. I didn’t take stupid risks, I knew better than to screw up.

In spite of my sanity, they finally talked me into it. So I grabbed the most durable looking sled around. My friends coached me: “Now, as you’re going down, use your hands to steer! Make sure you stay away from the music building, the hill kinda curves so you want to go towards it. Aim more for the auditorium, but if it looks like you’ll get too close, bail!”

A quick shove, and I was off. Trust me, with a hill that steep, you pick up speed quickly. Before I know it or I’ve even had time to enjoy myself, the music building grew WAY larger than I had anticipated.

“BAIL! BAIL!” the top-of-the-hill-spectators screamed.

So I did. But the thing is, I was still going about forty miles and hour. When I rolled off the sled, my only awareness was of was pain and snow and white. And finally, I stopped.

I just lay there for a second, hearing the laughter and applause of those watching. “That was the best bail ever!” my friend yelled.

Finally I pulled myself up. “I am NOT going to f***ing do that again!” I yelled. Everyone laughed. I stayed outside long enough to watch a few more people go down, then bid everyone farewell and went back inside to lick my wounds.

Result? I broke my collarbone.

Now, why does any of this matter? Because that was completely out of character for me. I have never been a big risk taker, and never really do stupid things like that. Yet totally out of the blue, (and NOT just because of peer pressure, let me be very clear in that—I had kind of been wanting to anyway,) I did something so incredibly dumb.

In real life, people, do this sort of thing. You can think you have someone pegged as rational, then they go down Suicide Hill. But what about fiction?

We have all been discussing (myself as well!) how important characterization is, and making sure all actions are rational for the characters, but now I’m starting to wonder. My characters always follow their own rules, but is that really realistic? Sometimes people do some things that don’t fit their character at all. Should our characters always do things that are predictable for them? Or is a completely bizarre, out-of-character action sometimes acceptable?

Note: I’m not pushing any idea; I’m opening up an honest question for discussion.


Haphazard said...

You know my opinion on this.

I don't believe that characters should do things out of character like this for a story. Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. If it doesn't make sense for a character to do something in fiction, given their characterization, it should not happen in the story.

People act funny like this in real life. Fictional people shouldn't.

courtney said...

Great post! You guys are so awesome I may never write again.

Now cut it out.

jk. :)

And ow. Your collarbone! My symapthies. Live and learn.

You know... I tend to be one of those people that thinks you control your characters--lots of writers have the alternate approach, the character controls them. Even still, I believe in keeping the realm of possibility open, to think that my character is capable of anything. If people can be, characters can be too. And that's why I think it's so important to ask the question "What if?" no matter how well you think you know your characters or the plot. A completely bizarre, out-of-character action might be less bizarre and more in-character than we realize and the only think keeping us from that realization might be a pre-conceived notion nad that would kinda suck. Or maybe it wouldn't be in character. But I think the key is to pause and consider it and not close yourself off to your options just because you think you know everything (not saying anyone here does--that was a general 'you').

Anyway, it's happened in my novel that's coming out. It was exciting. I hope it happens again...

Andrew Carmichael said...

I think it depends on the story. For your example (which I probably never could have done, lol) I think it'd be a great ending to a book about a character breaking out and doing something different.

Actually, if the story is about a character changing, then I think that having them do the unexpected is good.

But, generally, I think characters should be consistant. And I think that's because people are mostly consistant. And when they're not (as you weren't in your story) then it's the subject of the novel. Throwing it in there for no reason would be kind of silly.

So, to sum it up. I think characters should mostly be consistant with their actions, but can break out here or there if it pertains to the story.

courtney said...

Oh, Andrew's post makes me want to add something (thanks Andrew!)--

These kind of actions should never be at the expense of the story... you'll know if it does/doesn't work. I myself, wouldn't write against a character or a story. I just think it's important to consider all outcomes--consideration being the key word. You can take lots of unexpected paths to the same destinations and it might work out better than you anticipate...

Sage said...

Characters do things "out of character" all the time. It requires the right reasons though.

For example, a character might choose to be polite and nice all the time to everyone. But give them a character that pushes their buttons the wrong (or right?) way, and they may lash out.

Another character may push everyone away rather than getting close. Close = bad, as far as they're concerned. Of course, give them a reason they have to get close, and they'll break their own rules.

Another thing to consider is character growth. A character's rules/opinions/actions at the beginning of the novel may not be the same as they would be in the same sitch at the end of the novel. Of course, they're the same character, and you should be able to recognize them as such, but I like my MCs to have personal growth, and that means that values *may* change.

Just as in alt's example, characters who are responsible or cautious may need to take risks to get the story moving. And as long as you understand why (curiosity? necessity? for example), it makes sense.

althrasher said...

Andy, that's a really good point. I didn't even consider it for something like a massive character shift. But it would be great to use in some kind of coming-of-age story or something.

And Courtney, I think there's a lot to your concept that things aren't quite as out of character as we think. Sometimes we do tend to box our characters in, way more than we would real people. Although we're supposed to know everything about our characters, there's a fine line between knowing them and limiting them.

hannah said...

Awesome post, Amanda.

I'm very concerned with characters 'staying in character.' I think it comes from my acting background? But I *drumroll please* agree with Andy.

That's definitely not out of character for me...

courtney said...

"Although we're supposed to know everything about our characters, there's a fine line between knowing them and limiting them."

Exactly. I think it's just as dangerous to have a character be too obvious as it is to have them be too out of character. :)

Catherine said...

I think you can get away with out of character moments if you have a complex character (your mc), not so much with secondary characters.

I'm with Sage on this one - in fact I'll go so far as to say that a character acting out of character might be exactly what you want - The normally placid quiet mousy girl who is pushed to do something insane by the taunting of her peers - there's already the germ of an idea for a book. Books should be about the unexpected, about knocking our mcs out of safe and expected and having them do the crazy and impossible.

Not that you mc should be doing random out of character stuff - everything must have its reason. Just think about it though, about pushing your character beyond their boundaries and what that could do for your story.

Lera said...

Nothing is out of character as long as there is a legitimate reason behind it. Nothing is OOC for a story if there is a reason, and a PURPOSE, for it. If it adds to the story, if there can be a driver for the out of character action, then go for it.

One of my MCs is a very duty-bound and loyal person. He would NEVER run off the end of a dock, jump into icy waters, swim after some Crazy Lady, and then have to be rescued/kidnapped by her. Except if the Crazy Lady had something that would prevent his father from dying. MC's fear of death and love of his father made him do something very OOC and irrational. Or was it OOC? Can it be OOC if the right buttons were pushed to make a character act this way?

If the right stressors/buttons exist to make a character act outside his or her norm, then perhaps it isn't out of character. Maybe it's just characterization lying in wait. It's camouflaged. Just because you don't see this aspect of their character doesn't mean it isn't there.

Vanessa Concannon said...

I think Lera makes a good point. If it has a legitimate reason, it's not out of character at all. Just like your sledding down the hill had a motivation behind it--maybe you wanted to be one of the reckless people for once, and the crowd egging you on set up the right atmosphere for impulsiveness--unpredictable actions by characters are also motivated by SOMEthing, and that something can be as subtle as you like. But it must be there.

It's true, if characters behave nonsensically in a story that otherwise makes sense, the audience will be confused and put off. They didn't go into this expecting absurdism.

One of my MCs does something crazy and unpredictable in the backstory, which sets off the entire story. She wasn't crazy and unpredictable forever, but because of various factors she snaps and does something very out of character for kill her brother. Since I set up her motivation properly, this apparently out of character action still makes sense.

Seemingly irrational actions still have some purpose behind them that we can manipulate in fiction to ensure that our characters are not a bunch of multiply-personalitied nervous wrecks.

bethany said...

This is really thought provoking. I plan to come back when I have time to give all the comments a thorough read. Very interesting :).

NiennaC said...

I agree completely with Lera. And so, I won't add much - because my points were basically made already. :) Great post.

Though I do want to say that even though an OOC action can be explained through motivation, it should really pertain to the story as someone said above - not sure who, sorry! - otherwise, while acceptable and not out of the realm of possibility, it'll totally jar the story. IMHO.

Conman said...

I think that character is defined by what we expect characters NOT to do just as much as it is by what we do expect them to do. And people do things that are out of character all the time, if they didn't, we wouldn't really be able to define character at all.

LizR said...

I think that seemingly out-of-character behavior can work well for a story if it's unexpected, but at the same time, enough little details were offered early on to make it make sense. The kind of thing where the reader is saying, "I totally didn't expect that from Joe Blow, but I get it. I understand what led to that."

Now, about your post - When I was in college, we went on a winter camping trip one year, and a roommate of mine who didn't usually do crazy things went out with some of our other friends one night to sneak onto a nearby ski location and sled down on cafeteria trays.

She crashed into a tree, broke her jaw, and had it wired shut for four weeks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I so agree. If our characters are all over the map, it's hard to really understand them, and without understanding them it's difficult to sympathize with them. But people are changeable, and they're full of surprises. I think it's perfectly possible to have a character do something so unlike them as long as there's a good reason for it. It can really build tension and add depth.