08:43:39 pm on
Sunday 09 Dec 2018

Character Building
AJ Robinson

When you’re creating a story, whether a book or a script, how your characters act is important. I know this may seem an incredibly obvious statement. Yet, there’s more to it than might be thought.


Hiking off a boat.

I first saw this illustrated by a cartoon my parents had in our cottage in Oak Bluffs. It showed a man and a woman, supposedly, I think, my parents, hiking on a sailboat. Hiking on a sailboat involves leaning way out, off the side of the boat, putting your feet against the side, of the boat and holding on tight, as the boat races through the water.

The caption had the man, Robbie, asking the woman, Silvana, “Happy?” She replied, "Ecstatically," in an implied sarcastic tone. May family always laughed at the cartoon. I didn’t understand why it was such a joke until someone explained that my mother didn’t particularly care for sailing and she most definitely did not like hiking from a boat.

Later, as a writer, I thought of that cartoon. My dad could go out on his boat in rough seas, the waves high, the wind howling and have the best day ever. My mom would be seasick the whole time.

How can two people, my parents, react differently to the same experience? As do we all, my parents have different personalities. They learned to like or dislike activities or food, for example, as they experienced life, growing up.

Characters in stories have different personalities, likes and dislikes. Writers build characters, assigning life experience, like and dislikes, as necessary for the storyline. The more life-like the constructed story characters, the better the experience for the reader or viewer.

Thus, as a writer, I must pay attention. Characters must retain some relation to life with which readers or viewers can identify. A great example of this is the movie, Ice Station Zebra.

The main story concerns a US submarine journeying under the arctic ice to reach Ice Station Zebra; it’s on a combination rescue mission and recovery of super-secret satellite film. As it’s a Cold War thriller, the evil Russians are likewise out to get the film and thus sabotage the submarine.


Characters respond as built by the author.

At one point, a submarine torpedo tube is opened, water rushes in and the sub plunges into the depths of the Arctic Ocean. The crew, efficient as ever, snaps to their duties and does everything they can to save the ship. The pumps go to full, the engines go into full reverse and the reactor goes red, meaning it’s at more than full power.

Still, the sub keeps dropping. The crew stays cold as ice, pun intended. One crewmember starts to whisper his “Hail Marys,” but other than that, they don’t crack. The chief engineer does finally ask the captain to ease off on the power and, no, his name is not Scotty and he doesn’t say, “Me engines cannot take no more!”

The chief engineer does ask to throttle back. The captain says no. The engineer acquiesces, saying to his assistant, “The reactor will melt in a few minutes. The assistant replies, “It doesn’t matter, the hull is going to crack any second.”

A squad of Marines, fully trained in arctic combat but not used to life underwater, are also on the submarine. They scare, become nervous; one Marine truly looks as if he is going to lose it at any moment. The squad leader sees that, weaves his way through the crowd to get next to especially scared and nervous Marine. The leader puts his hand over other’s hand. It’s a simple act, but it calms and reassures him; he keeps it together.

Here’s another example from Carl Sagan. Meeting an alien, he would respond and react differently than a dumb, redneck yahoo hillbilly; at least I would hope so. When a writer is trying to figure out how their characters should react to a situation, they need to make the reaction true to the character; true to how she or he, as a writer, built the character.

I had a similar challenge with a book for children I was writing. The main character, a boy of ten, said a very mature thing when locked in a dungeon. My editor pointed out that the line didn't work. It was true, it was an honest statement, by the boy,, but the words coming out of the mouth of a child, he quoted Ghandi, just didn't make sense. I had to re-write the dialogue to make it sound authentic.


Recognise what causes reactions in different characters.

Similar circumstances, but different responses, based on the life experience and personality of real-life characters, Robbie and Silvana, and characters in a movie, the squad leader and squad member, or fiction, such as Sagan meets an alien. As a writer, you don’t want different characters reacting the same way in a situation; that doesn’t approximate real life and won’t ring true. As a writer or storyteller, you need to keep this point in the forefront of your mind; else, your story hollows out, fast.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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