Take Boromir, for example. (Please). Boromir, from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is champion of Gondor and son of its de facto king, thereby poised in line to inherit the Steward’s chair when dear old dad (the unhinged Denethor) shuffles off this mortal coil. Boromir is also, as I used to show my high school English classes, a tragic hero in the true sense of the mold: a noble character possessed of a (gasp!) fatal flaw, which we as audiences have been conditioned over the last several thousand years to both recognize and understand that it will rear its ugly head, in all its gory glory, at the most inopportune possible moment in the plot.
In Boromir’s case, to no one’s great surprise, it’s the Ring he lusts after. Well, I should probably amend that: it’s no surprise to the reader, because Tolkien foreshadows/telegraphs Boromir’s impending grab in --- let’s be honest --- rather predictable manner. However, like characters in a horror film who’ve evidently never seen what happens to people in haunted houses when they split up ‘to cover more ground,’ only Sam Gamgee appears to have any inkling Boromir will manifest a sudden, uncontrollable hankering for jewellery --- the rest of the Fellowship cruise on in blissful ignorance/naivete that’s, frankly, in these dark times, a little hard to swallow. And even Sam doesn’t speak up before Things Messily Fall Apart. Jackson’s film version makes it even more obvious… I mean, after we witness Frodo’s tumble on the mountain and Boromir’s mesmerized little soliloquy to/at the Ring as though it’s a beautiful woman… how could anyone with an IQ greater than a mushroom be in any doubt regarding his intentions? But I digress.
So yeah, we’re almost always a pretty predictable species.
Except, of course, when we aren’t.
This was vicariously brought home to me the other day, when I was --- ahem, he said sheepishly --- watching YouTube videos instead of writing on my current WIP like I was nominally supposed to be doing. (How predictable. Frailty, thy name is writer.) Quite accidentally, I ran across a heart-rending video posted by a woman who’d just suffered a horrendous breakup with her partner. I felt really badly for her: they were actually travelling across the country to the city where they were to marry, and on the way, her partner decided that, no thanks, she wasn’t up for this. In fact, she wanted to call off the wedding and part ways. So… they did, the woman’s partner roaring off into the sunset in their customized van, leaving her and their two dogs in the house they’d recently bought --- in happier times.
And I thought… wow… who could’ve seen that coming? Talk about one of life’s un-dodgeable sledgehammer blows: things seem great, you’re on the cusp of commitment with the love of your life after being together several years, and… wham! Oh, sure, we’ve all heard of people left at the altar, but I doubt it happens that often. (Well, maybe it does… I’ve plainly led a sheltered life in that regard.) But it is behaviour that’s, at first glance --- without personally knowing these two women and their history --- jaw-droppingly unpredictable.
(We could spend an entire post discussing --- and attempting to comprehend --- the fundamental mystery of what drives people to share their most intimate thoughts/feelings on social media to a world of complete strangers, many of whom are, apparently, of doubtful mental soundness and empathy… but we won’t. At least, not today. We can leave that particular steaming pile o’ psychological poop for another time. Maybe.)
Now, from a literary perspective, characters behaving in totally unpredictable manner --- which means going against all previously defined social/emotional parameters --- is something I recommend be handled very carefully, rather like your cat if you decide it needs a bath. Why? Because it’s kind of a weird irony, really: we bemoan characters behaving in clichéd, stereotypical fashion because, ‘My gosh, you know, can’t the writer find something more original to put into the narrative?’ But when we have said characters do something very unexpected, there’s the potential for readers to snort in disgust and say, “Nope, I don’t buy it. People simply don’t do those sorts of things out of the blue.”
(Well, in fact… they do. Just not as often as they behave predictably. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard of the quiet guy at the back of the warehouse who one day just snaps and takes out half the staff in a blaze of gunfire, and everyone afterwards says in hushed, sorrowful tones they just would not have believed him capable of such a thing.)
The key, I think, is people may appear to behave unpredictably at times, but we all --- even those insane in the true medical sense --- have reasons for doing what we do. While those reasons may seem bizarre or nonsensical to others, they’re always rational to us. The ‘unpredictable’ label gets attached only because those around the person in question either fail to notice behavioural clues, or the person has been very, very good at concealing them. And let’s face it: we don’t want to assume the worst about anyone (noble sentiment, but not always very sensible). Here’s your Dark Lesson in Human Nature for today, folks: referencing my warehouse example, we are, every single one of us, capable of just about anything, given the right provocations and/or reasons.
Um, okay. That got a little dark, didn’t it? So let’s end on a lighter note: the famous 1962 song Call Me Irresponsible which goes, in part:
Call me unpredictable, tell me I'm impractical
Rainbows, I'm inclined to pursue
Call me irresponsible, yes, I'm unreliable
But it's undeniably true
I'm irresponsibly mad for you
So, go ahead, ask your characters to behave unpredictably. Just don’t be surprised when they take you up on it, possibly to your --- or their --- peril.
Call me unpredictable, indeed.