Out of character

char1012_imagery“It fits the  perpetrator’s M.O.” … you’ve heard M.O. mentioned in so many police shows, detective novels, any kind of work related to law enforcement. What is it? A profile of a killer who has struck again collection constructed from every detail  of a crime. The victims’ age, gender, race, style of dress; when it occurred: morning,  weekends, undercover of dark, where it took place: country road, back alley and data on type and make of weapon such as ballistic details, and so forth…

What does M.O. really stand for? Modis operandi, a Latin phrase translated as mode of operation. These psychological profiles do not simple belong to criminals. Companies also have a modis operandi, or preferred way to doing business (which should not fall into the domain of criminal activity). And we all have one, although most of our customary behaviors to get what we want remain unwritten, but are well recognized by our friends and acquaintances.

Characters in books need to have an M.O. also. This goes beyond describing external actions, such as ways of moving and talking. The M.O. is set behavior aimed at a goal. For example, a person hoards money – Silas Marner is a good fictional example –  an old man spending all his days working, and stockpiling his earnings. Does Silas really just want to have a lot of gold in a bag around because it is shiny? He is trying to achieve something else by sitting on wealth. In Silas’ case it is to replace the family that he thought he should have had before he was framed for theft and his fiancée married someone else. He craves acceptance and belonging.

As in Silas’s case the true goal is often intangible: love, inclusion, security, importance, fame, control or power. Those kinds of attainments that one can keep chasing after and never obtain. But the exterior method a person has chosen seems promising in delivering these results. Often we create characters that are simply brave, glamorous, brooding or hot-headed, but if we do not consider why they are that way, and what their goals actually are, we risk having our characters act out of character.

Art by S.L. Listman

This entry was posted in Literature, Teaching writing skills, Writer's resource and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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