The shy girl at school might grab the most popular guy and kiss him. An overprotective mother might encourage her children to live a little. Perhaps someone with a huge fear of heights decides to go skydiving. And aren't those moments so exciting when they happen? It isn't normal behavior for these characters you've grown to love and accept, though there is a good chance you wish it was, and that is what makes for more interesting material when further developing your character.
I'm going to shamelessly toot my own horn here and use my protagonist, Hope Fairmont, as an example of this. In The Healer, Hope possesses the ability to heal people's illnesses and injuries by connecting to their spirits and instructing the body to self-repair. It's a very detailed process, and a true labor of love for her. She works at a hospital as a janitor, facilitating easy access to those people she can help with her gift. Her mantra is to save lives and ease pain. Never in a million years would she contemplate using her gift for anything but healing.
As the story continues, we discover that the demon god Amatsu has sent his minions to kidnap her, preventing her from fulfilling a world altering destiny she hadn't previously known she was a part of. She must fight against these mercenaries of the underworld in order to save herself and her friends. So what happens to her own view of herself and her gift when these new circumstances come into play? Take a look at this excerpt from The Healer to find out.
The minute my hand touched his sword I felt a surge of power sweep through me. A light surrounded my skin and shot out my fingers. All three nekomata sprang into action, and I easily danced over, around, and under every threatening move they made. I found my first opportunity and sliced off the head of Victor’s opponent. I used my momentum to roll to the ground and spring up, taking off the head of the nekomata who’d almost killed Ms. Mori. I motioned for the last nekomata to make his move, readying my stance, looking for an opening or weakness in his position. He snarled at me, charging forward with his sword held high. He’d left his chest wide open, but instead of plunging my sword in, I lifted it up and blocked his downward swing while simultaneously placing my hand against his heart.
You’re mine, I thought happily.
I connected with him and instructed his life force to stop his heart from beating. It complied, eager to end its own painful, evil existence. The nekomata’s eyes widened in surprise as its heartbeat began to slow. I gave him a wicked smile, thoroughly enjoying the power I held in just one hand. He couldn’t fight something like this, and there was no way for him to move once I started.
It was a very simple process, really. One that my superiors had trained me for in case my sword fighting skills weren’t enough. The process of healing gave power to the one being healed, but the process of killing someone put all of that lovely power back where it belonged…with me. I could take a life just as easily as I could give it.
Take a life!
I shook my head trying to gain control of my thoughts and actions. The nekomata’s eyes were beginning to roll into the back of his head and his body was convulsing violently. He was in agony and I was the cause of it. I was doing it. What in the world was I doing? I released him by pushing him backwards and away from me. He stumbled to the floor and took in a huge, pain-filled breath.
“I’m sorry,” I said horrified. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I wanted to cry; I felt so terrible.
He looked at his slain companions and then back at me and let out a strange kind of chuckle, like he couldn’t believe I was apologizing for hurting him when I’d already managed to kill two of his assassins. I thought he might say something or possibly surrender. Instead, he surprised me by turning around and jumping head first out the window. I heard a light thud from the ground below and then there was nothing.
I was breathing heavily, and sweat poured from my forehead running down the sides of my temples. I’d never felt so powerful, so in control of my movements. My euphoria was cut short at the sight of the bloody sword in my hand. I considered what I’d just done. I’d just killed. Not once, but twice, and I hadn’t hesitated for even a moment, and then I’d almost taken a life by using the same power I utilized to save lives.
And I had enjoyed doing it.
Clearly it's possible for a character's limits or fast held rules to be altered when circumstances permit. Hope would never have considered hurting a fly let alone killing anyone, but she did so to protect herself and those she loved, experiencing a heady, almost addicting sense of power that had never been present before. This addicting aspect to her gift could cause problems for her in the future. This is an example of a quality that pushes past a character's own self-imposed limits regardless of whether those limits are good or bad.
Will it make Hope memorable? I think so. Can you think of any moments in your novel where your character could exhibit qualities and traits that go against their self-imposed limits?
Consider what your protagonist would never say, do or think and write those things down. Then find parts in your story where your protagonist would have to say do or think those very things and consider the fall out from that. It's an exciting way to add plot twists and surprises to your story while giving depth and dimension to your character.
The Fundamentals of Character Development
Part 1: Heroic Qualities
Part 2: Character Flaws
Part 3: Multidimensional Characters
Part 4: Creating Inner Conflict
For more in-depth instruction on character development, consider purchasing Writing The Break-out Novel by Donald Mass.