In or Out of Character?

I’ve often wondered what the term “Out of Character” really means, or how it applies in fiction. Generally it refers to a well established character in a long running work, like a book or a television series, doing something that is out of contrast with what the audience has come to expect.

Greedo Shot First is a classic example of out-of-character behavior, as it purifies Hon Solo, but destroys the character that audiences came to love and respect for being the guy that actually did shoot first. This is a clear cut example, but what of the less obvious ones?

In the last episode of David Tennant’s run on Doctor Who (Not counting Day of The Doctor), the Doctor makes what fans consider to be some of the most out-of-character remarks for the Doctor. First there’s the idea that the Doctor suddenly views his pending regeneration as a death, whereas he had always looked forward to each regeneration with acceptance and optimism (except, maybe, when he was forced by the Time Lords to regenerate) . But in the end, when it seems that he must sacrifice his tenth body for the life of Wilfred Mott, he openly complains about this fact. Then there is his final comment – the one that fans still throw darts at a picture of Russel T. Davis over: “I don’t want to go.” 

In Forever Knight, Lacroix is a two-thousand-year-old vampire who is the titular character’s maker and antagonist for two seasons, before taking over a night club in season 3. In one episode, he is heard shouting, “Let’s Get Naked!” To some fans, this was a huge departure from the cool and calculating, chess master of the first two seasons.

Then you have Duncan Macleod of the Clan Macleod, from Highlander: The Series. In the season three episode Obsession, we’re treated to a flashback in which Duncan apparently had an episode of obsessive behavior following the death of one of his great loves. This led to him stalking a woman who had refused his advances, which was not in line with his ordinarily chivalrous behavior.

In the respective universes of all three examples, I have speculated as to whether or not it was accurate to say that these were out-of-character actions. When you’re immortal – or practically immortal in the case of The Doctor – it stands to reason that you’re going to have a couple of bad days that the audience isn’t aware of.

Have you ever relayed a story of your life to someone who said, “Wow, that seems totally unlike you?”  Was this a story of out-of-character behavior, or were you simply revealing a side of your character that your friend or loved one didn’t know about?

This brings me to my final example. But first, I need to issue the standard spoiler alert, as this example is from the first episode of season six of Downton Abbey.

The second disclaimer is that this character is a woman, and I don’t want people thinking that I am being sexist, just because four examples that I’ve mentioned have all been male characters. It is simply that I have seen Downton Abbey most recently, so my thoughts and feelings about this character are most fresh in my mind.

Also, since Downton is a trending topic, I’m rather hungry for visits to my Author’s Blog and this seems the logical way to generate some readers. Now that I have protected myself with a spoiler warning and reassurances of my views on gender equality, lets continue (Also: Be sure to read my Alternate Scene, if you’re in the mood for a laugh).

Like every season of Downton Abbey, Season 5 was full of more plots than a graveyard for fleas. I don’t think all of the alphabets of every spoken language, living or dead, would be enough to categorize the plots in one episode. But this plot involves the rivalry between Sprat and Ms. Denker, the butler and maid of Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham .

In season 5, we’re undoubtedly on Denker’s side. She works very hard to please Violet, but has to contend with Spratt’s constant antagonism. Spratt is likely motivated by the fear that his place at the top of the very limited hierarchy in Violet’s staff is threatened, but his behavior is never remotely acceptable; although in reality, the rivalry provides some bit of entertainment value to the dowager countess and her luncheon guests.

The rivalry comes to a head when Denker tries to impress the countess by making the simplest of dishes: chicken soup. (I apologize if any career chefs think that I am diminishing the effort that goes into making chicken soup. That is not my intention and this is only a figure of speech. Chill out.) However her skills in the kitchen apparently fall a little short, so she turns to the staff at the Abbey for assistance.

Mrs. Patmore, Downton’s head cook, and her apprentice Daisy Mason, actually go well out of their way to help Denker make an allegedly top notch chicken soup. I say allegedly, because Spratt finds the bottle and pours it out before Denker can heat it up and present it to the countess. Once again, firmly establishing our sympathy for Denker, and our feeling that Spratt is the star pupil in Tomas Barrow’s learning annex course on how to be a jerk in the workplace.

Violet puts a stop to the rivalry by telling Spratt to knock it off. End scene. So what’s the problem?

Season 6, episode one rolls around. It’s 1925. The social climate is changing and there is talk of having to downsize even more of Downton’s once considerable workforce. Violet confides this to Denker, but orders her to keep it under her hat.

Denker proceeds to use this information to bully Spratt, which you might forgive, considering how Spratt treated her. But when it becomes unforgivable is when she relays this information to the staff at the Abbey.

She doesn’t do this in a sociable fashion. It’s not friendly, but concerned chatter over a cup of tea. Denker firmly believes that her position is secure, and she proceeds to visit the same antagonistic treatment to the staff of Downton. Not only that, but she’s doing this to Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, the two people who tripped over themselves to help her in her time of need!

This is probably a great example of out-of-character behavior. Because fans of the series may come to the conclusion that I have, that Denker’s actions and dialogue were probably written with O’Brien in mind.

O’Brien was the original maid of Lady Cora, whose misplaced feelings of betrayal led to committing a vengeful action that resulted in the death of the Cora and Robert’s unborn son.

There have been times in other televised works of fiction when something was written with a certain character in mind, only to that scene or dialogue given to a completely different character. This is speculation on my part, and I’m probably wrong. But it would explain the sudden 180 that Denker’s character has taken in this first episode of Downton’s final season.

Or, as I also suggested, maybe this has always been a part of Denker’s character that we just didn’t see in Season 5. Maybe her fear that she would lose her position as the dowager countess’ maid just made her extra cautious about stepping on toes, so turning to Mrs. Patmore was just an act of survival. Now that she has deluded herself into believing she is untouchable, she could just be showing us her true colors.

When developing our own characters in a work of fiction, the concept of “Out-of-Character” is going to come up. As long as the writer knows what he is doing, this shouldn’t be a problem. But be prepared to defend yourself if you’re lucky enough to have a devoted audience that follows your characters as closely as the people who belong to these and other fandoms.

2 thoughts on “In or Out of Character?

  1. “Out of character” is usually associated with the theater, where it is considered “unprofessional” (even in amateur productions) to break away from the persona being portrayed. Many notable exceptions have been seen, especially in TV shows. To the matter at hand: Miss Denker has often shown herself to be a troublemaker, under a guise of propriety and affected innocence, so there was certainly no mistake in the writing of the scenes. I questioned the Dowager’s wisdom in mentioning the possible “cutbacks” to Denker at all, but concluded that she was testing the “veritable tomb” of silence and baiting the dissension between Spratt and Denker.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. I remember my theater arts teacher always telling us to stay “in character”. He was also the director of the local theater, and as a part of the class, we got to see a number of plays, including The Man Who Came To Dinner.

      During the opening of the play there was a technical glitch and the lights went out. One of the actors said, “Honey, did you forget to pay the light bill?” Which was of course, for the benefit of the mix of middle to high school aged students who were watching the play. But our teacher commented on this later, in class, saying that it was unprofessional and that it ruined the illusion, or something of the sort. I doubt as if the other classes noticed.

      You’re probably right about Miss Denker, as well. Perhaps I’m only remembering the parts of her that were likable. But that actually fits in perfectly with what I’m saying about how sometimes people only project onto the character what they believe is appropriate way for how they should act.

      Here I am, projecting onto Miss Denker and then being surprised when she turns out to be just as sneaky and manipulative. I guess it explains why Isabel was so quick to side with Violet when Violet was chiding Denker her about possibly letting her go.


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