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Monday, January 4, 2016

Considering the Irrationality of Your Characters

In honor of The Hunger Games movies finishing up this last year, I re-read the trilogy (again), and realized (again) that when it comes to Katniss Everdeen, Suzanne Collins doesn't forget to consider Katniss's irrational side.

Often when we deal with characters, we spend a lot of time building their rational side. We look at their rational motives and try to make sure they are thinking logically for the story line. I know I have spent hours trying to brainstorm and pin down the logical thoughts in some of my characters' heads. But considering how your character can be irrational can provide plenty of ideas for you to play with.

Throughout the series, Collins lets us in on Katniss's irrational thoughts and feelings. Katniss sometimes even realizes they are irrational herself. As vital as logical thoughts and feelings are, sometimes it's the irrational that can kick our story up a notch and escalate the suspense.

One of the examples that leapse to mind is in the first book, The Hunger Games, when Katniss first gets into the arena. Haymitch specifically tells her not to run to the cornucopia, but when Katniss sees the bow and arrows, she's extremely tempted to go for them. Peeta sees this and shakes his head at her, which leads Katniss to hesitate. She misses her chance to get the bow and arrows and is angry at Peeta.

We get how she's angry at Peeta, but from a strictly logical point of view, it's irrational. Peeta was just trying to discourage Katniss, in order to keep her alive. Katniss wasn't supposed to go for the bow anyway. And Katniss is mad at him?

That's a simple example, but there are plenty of others. Sometimes it's Katniss's irrational emotions and decisions (especially coupled with her impulsiveness and borderline hysteria) that really amplify the tension in the story. It keeps the story and Katniss interesting. And at least for me, it make Katniss feel more real.

Now a bit of warning, usually (not always) the reader needs to understand where the irrationality is coming from, on some level. If it's out of the blue and out of character, this can hurt rather than help your scene. Katniss being mad at Peeta might not be the most logical thing, but we understand her on a human level. She's really upset about not getting the bow, and the secondary emotion--anger--is being directed at him.

Like in my post about the emotional range of your character, how irrational your character is and in what why he is, depends on his personality. Katniss tends to be very angry or in breakdown mode when she becomes irrational. Other people get irrational when they are extremely happy (irrationally optimistic, for example) or when they are jealous. Some characters are irrational more often than others.

Powerful emotions are a great path to irrational behavior, but flawed reasoning can lead your character there as well.

So don't forget to consider irrationality in your story.


  1. So basically, a character's irrationality has to seem rational to the reader ;) or at least feasible

    That's a tough line to walk.

  2. So basically, a character's irrationality has to seem rational to the reader ;) or at least feasible

    That's a tough line to walk.

  3. My characters tend to be irrational without me realizing it. It's my critique partners who usually have to point this out to me.


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