This morning I saw something unusual. Something unbelievable. It lasted only about two minutes, yet I've been thinking about it for awhile. I watched a duck, one of those large and ugly Muscovy ducks, land in a white pine outside my lanai.
It was absurd. I usually watch squirrels and woodpeckers in this tree. But this huge bird tried to go where it is not designed to go. I watched this duck gingerly step across the branch, its webbed feet awkward on the bough. It looked up into the pine needles and nearly lost its balance. It looked down along the bark, moving cautiously, like a human walking a tightrope. It inched along the limb until its own weight caused the tree limb to bend and the poor duck fell. Instinct caused it to extend wings but it was surrounded by pine cones, needles, and tree limbs. So it made quite a racket as it crashed through the lower branches until it was able to fly away.
I wonder what caused this duck to attempt to waddle on webbed feet through the treetops? I sat in disbelief by what I'd seen. There was a lesson behind it, brief though the observation was.
This is must be how the reader feels when we ask our characters to act outside their nature. We create our characters and so know (or should know anyway) what makes them tick. When we drop them into a tree (or some other scene or situation in which they do not belong) it sticks out for the reader, much like this duck distracted me from what I'd been doing. I had to stop and watch this absurdity play out.
In our stories, though, the reader may not watch in disbelief, rubbing his or her eyes and wondering, "Am I seeing things?" The reader may drop the story in disappointment, feeling let down by the writer. "Does he really think I'm an idiot to believe this would happen next?" "Where did this timid character suddenly find such courage?"
Its okay to challenge a character, to give him or her flaws. These make the character real, just as real people face unusual circumstances and learn and grow from them. But remember to play fair. You created the characters after all, so you should know how they will each act and react in a given situation. Dropping them into conflict just to stir things up doesn't help the story--or endear the reader to you or your characters.