A character makes a quick run to the corner store and decides not to bother locking the door. One more speeding ticket and your character will lose their license but they keep on speeding. Cheating, crime, and the Darwin Effect are all good examples of character stupidity and irrationality. This is the stuff that makes characters real.
A character who always does the right thing doesn’t sound like a real person.
Real people don’t always make the right decisions. Even the most rational among us know what they should do but let their emotions dictate their action. You shouldn’t visit reddit.com because you have work to do, but you want to have a laugh. You should end a relationship with a cheating partner, but you’re still in love. You should ignore bad behavior from a casual friend, but you want revenge.
We also do the wrong thing because we’re distracted. We daydream. We focus on what’s most important instead of what’s most urgent. Opportunities get missed. The wrong opportunities are taken.
We do the wrong thing because we are lazy. Someone else will catch that problem. Maybe nobody will notice if it’s not done. Maybe a repetitive task can be done less often. Then, even less. Then, not at all. Now the character has become fetid bachelor frog.
An offshoot of laziness is stupidity. We are stupid about things we are too lazy to learn because we don’t really care about knowing them. If you’re not into computers, you don’t study how to keep your internet connection up. Instead, when it goes down, you call tech support and they tell you how to fix it. Characters will also be stupid about anything they have no interest in. If you give a character skills that don’t relate to their job or hobbies, where did they get the knowledge?
How about misunderstandings between characters? For example, the hotel clerk who regrets that the customers credit card didn’t work and the customer who thinks the clerk is being sarcastic and rude. People choose their interpretation of what’s going on. Some expect to be attacked socially. Some deliberately find fault, even if they need to make it up. Others expect they will get their way every time on certain things.
Even the most rational person will make the wrong choice if it supports what they believe. Career. Corporate loyalty. Religion. Politics. These are the enemies of rationality and they’re here to stay.
When your characters are in a role that’s important to them, it makes sense that they will have a level of expertise. When they step out of their comfort zone, make them simple and stupid.
This is just one more of the many ways you can make your characters stand out as real people and help to make them different from the other people in your novel.
If you’d like more ideas on developing unique characters, check out these other Writer on Fire articles:
Article by Ivan Izo.