Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Newton’s Third Law (for writers)


You remember those, right? Okay, nerd cap on for the refresher of Newton’s Laws of Motion:

  • First law: A body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion (or simply, inertia). It’s like not wanting to get out of bed in the morning (body at rest), and then the cat (or dog) jumps on you and insists it’s time for breakfast/walk/pee break (an outside force affecting inertia πŸ˜€ ).
  • Second law: An object’s force is mass times acceleration. Think of it as the difference between a terrier running up to greet you and a Great Dane running up to greet you. One of these will be like catching a basketball, the other will body-slam you.
  • Third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Remember those experiments way back in elementary school where the same poles of magnets would repel? Yep, kinda like that.

So, what exactly has this got to do with writing? Well, I was thinking (I know, scary πŸ™‚ ) about characters and reactions.

Earlier this week I subbed at the library, because their high school staff member has basketball practice after school. And because it was after Thanksgiving, it was time to decorate for Christmas. Lexy (the high schooler) set up the tree already, so all I had to do was find stuff to put on the walls, etc.

The decorations are stored in the basement. So the staff member I was relieving led me into the basement to show me where things were. And one of the first things I noticed was this:

If you saw this in your basement, what would be your first reaction? Scream? Find something to hit it with? Or calmly say, “Hey, did you know you have a bat hibernating in the basement?”

Because the little guy wasn’t bothering anyone, and I knew it was sleeping, I picked the third option. (Honestly, bats don’t bother me because I know they eat bugs. Lots of bugs.)

Anyway, that (and every Sunday night’s America’s Funniest Videos episode) made me think about characters and how they react to things. A lot of our everyday activity is based on actions and our reactions to them. A character returns home from errands and finds the door to her apartment–that she is absolutely certain she locked–is unlocked. A character arrives after a call from a friend frantic about a break-in, and finds said friend on the floor unconscious and bleeding.

For every situation a character will react in a particular way. Does that character freak out when she finds the door unlocked? What about finding the friend? How does she handle the situation? Does she enter the apartment anyway? Does she run off to find help?

Characters should react the way we expect them to. An exterminator will not jump up on a chair when a mouse scurries across the kitchen floor. A firefighter will not run around frantically when they find their garage on fire.

Then again, sometimes it works to have a character react in an unexpected way. The nurse who retches when a patient vomits. Or, as seen on AFV, the mom who can’t bear to prep a raw turkey without gagging (no, she didn’t throw up, but it sounded like she usually did).

If a character reacts in a way the reader doesn’t expect, there must be a good reason for it. Is the nurse sensitive to odor? (of course, if he is, why on earth be a nurse?) Maybe he is going through chemotherapy and is extra-sensitive to odors. Maybe the mom who can’t stand to touch raw meat had to prep the turkey this year because her sister just got a new job and is working over Thanksgiving.

Sometimes it’s fun to have a character react differently than expected. It keeps things interesting, but it also has to fit the character. Case in point: I used to be an aircraft mechanic, and the only female aircraft mechanic where I worked. So one night I’m walking across the hangar and someone calls my name. I look, and this thing is arcing through the air in my direction. So I calmly stand where I’m at and watch a dead mouse hit the floor a few feet away.

I don’t know what my co-worker was expecting me to do, but I think he was disappointed, because I didn’t react the way he expected, i.e. like a girl. Another example is when one of the guys I worked with (same place) reacted to a moth fluttering around in the crew van we took to the gate. Imagine a little kid reacting to a moth–they dance around and swat at it. The next night, someone glued a dead cecropia moth to the top of his toolbox. Moral of the story: don’t let your fellow mechanics know you’re afraid of moths.

Make sure your characters react to situations in a way that fits their personality. If they react otherwise, give them a reason to do so. In case you were wondering about the bat, someone came the next day and removed it. And I found out that was the third bat they had found in the basement. Methinks a bat house might be a nice alternative.

And I made it for NaNo! Of course, I didn’t finish the story, but I’m a lot closer to the end than I was before. This weekend is forecast to be snowing and blowing, so I have a great excuse to hunker down and write.

Have a great weekend!

zoey asleep

Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for over a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), two dogs, six chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

23 thoughts on “Newton’s Third Law (for writers)

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Characters don’t always react the way one might expect. But well-written characters always react in ways that make sense for that context. That is, they don’t act randomly. Oh, and about that little guy you found? When I lived in Illinois, we found more than one of those in our house…

    Liked by 1 person

    • More than one bat in the house, and I’m much less enamored with them. Every so often one will sneak in when my husband feeds the dogs. Bats are great, but not in the house πŸ˜€ And yes, well-written characters is the key, I think. I remember a book (don’t remember which book) where the character did something/reacted some way that didn’t make sense. Threw me out of the story. It was the only time the character did something like that, but it made me think like a writer instead of a reader (note to self: don’t do the same thing πŸ˜€ )

      Have a great weekend, Margot!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Julie, You are so much calmer than I would have been. Logarithmically calmer (I’m getting in with your geekiness).

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! Love the geekiness πŸ˜€ And even when the cat brings up a mouse ‘toy’ (still alive πŸ˜‰ ), I manage not to react too much, because it’s better to let the cat play until the mouse is dead than have the mouse escape and wonder where it went πŸ˜€

      Have a great weekend, Jacqui!


  3. Loved this post, Julie. I mean, I didn’t care for my high school and college science classes, but those laws ring true.

    And how cool to learn you were an aircraft mechanic! (Now I want to ask you a ton of questions about planes, because I’m an uncomfortable flyer. But I fear I wouldn’t like the answers, so I’ll continue in ignorant bliss. Or acceptance. Ignorant acceptance.)

    Congrats on NaNo!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post gave me some ideas, Julie, since my characters for the new trilogy are still taking shape in my head and they need a little more personality. So thanks!. And congrats on reaching your count for NaNo. I was watching you race toward the finish line.
    BTW, I saw the video on AFV of the mom gagging. What a riot. Could not stop laughing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent! Glad to help! And thanks for the pep nano-note–that was fun to see! Glad it’s over, and glad I did it this year, even if I still haven’t reached “The End”. I’m way further along than I was, and I worked out some things with the plot. Now to reach the end and let it rest a bit before I rewrite/revise.

      Have a great writing weekend, Diana!


  5. Isaac approves of your science references. πŸ˜‰ Well done on the bat. I’m sure I would’ve gasped, then taken a step back, and finally, said what you said slowly and quietly, minus the hibernating part b/c I’m not so smart as to think that. Well done with the writing. And, this post was long, I was thinking, and so, I was also thinking, give me some cat in here! And you didn’t disappoint. You never do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! I’m glad Isaac approves πŸ˜€ The whole bat thing reminded me of the “furrry bug” my daughter found on her door (the door frame, actually) one morning. A bat had gotten into the house the night before and disappeared. My daughter called me to her room and showed me the “furry bug”. It was summer/fall?, so I didn’t want to wake it. I got a pair of work gloves and carefully brought it outside (it, of course, was awake by then), where it flew off.

      I figured the post was long, so I’d better put a reward at the end! Have a great weekend, Betsy!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like your Newton explanations better than the ones I learned in school πŸ™‚ What a cute little bat! My only fear is if I see them flying around in the day and rabies. Other than that they don’t bother me at night when they feast on the bugs. I think my reaction would be the same as yours..not to react like a girl. It is important to make sure our characters do the same. Congrats on completing your word count.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Denise! I haven’t seen bats fly around in the day; mostly at dusk when they come out. And I don’t know if they are still considered a major carrier of rabies; here in MN we usually blame raccoons for that.

      Enjoy your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was unnerved when I saw it years ago. They were over some cows just hovering during the day as we drove by. My aunt explained they had rabies. It was crazy to see. I never would have thought of raccoons, but I guess it can be any animal. Thanks:)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! From Newton to bats … all encapsulated around the topic of writing! Julie, this is a superb post and how right you are to say that the reaction of our characters is so important … whether expected, absurd, they have to ring true! I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and your reaction to the bat is commendable. To some extent I suppose it is what one is used to and the knowledge of the animals etc. I remember one customer upon seeing a large spider going deathly pale, shuddering, whilst I just got a bowl, caught it and put it outside. Now, I always did wonder about his deep fear … a story there!

    Well done on completing the November writing marathon … the month seems to have flown by. Do you feel the same? Enjoy your snow … I’ve quite forgotten what it looks like! πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Annika! And yes, this month has flown by! Of course, it seems like the whole year has flown by. And spiders I’m okay with, as long as they aren’t poisonous (i.e. anything but a brown recluse, black widow, etc).

      We didn’t get as much snow as we feared, which is a good thing because we could get away without having to snowblow the driveway. And I didn’t have to drive in it!

      Enjoy your week, Annika! May you get a taste of snow for the season (a white Christmas? Maybe? In the UK? Or a few hours of white, anyway πŸ˜€ )

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love bats….from a distance. I love to watch them at night when they’re flitting about overhead. I’ve done that since I was a kid. I’ll even drag a lawn chair out in the summer twilight to observe them. On the flip side, I remember waking in the middle of the night in my first house and having a bat flying back and forth over my head—not fun. My cats—McDoogal and Arafel–on the other hand, were entranced.

    I love that you were a female airplane mechanic. There has to be a story in how you chose that profession (any hints of it in Murder in Plane Sight?). This was such an entertaining post. I’m glad you’ve got a jump-start with NaNo on your next WIP. And I feel like curling up with a book much like Zoey is curled up for her nap. Happy Sunday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s fun watching them at night; they fly differently than birds, so we can always tell when the bats come out. We just have to be careful that one doesn’t stray into the house when my husband opens the door to feed the dogs on the deck. Usually he can catch them (we have a fish net handy for such occasions), or they disappear and we wait for them to come out the next night.

      Oh, there’s a story behind my aviation career, but not like my MCs story. I gave her a better one πŸ˜‰ Of course, yesterday Zoey decided the best nap spot was my lap. Which was fine until I laughed during AFV and disturbed her. She has no sense of humor!

      Have a great week, Mae!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. How interesting to learn you were an aircraft mechanic, Julie. And I love that you didn’t the way people expect a woman to react. Congratulations on your NaNo accomplishment. Good writing advice as usual, and good advice on how to handle finding a bat. I don’t want to harm them, but I like them better when they are outside or asleep, as was the one you found. Perhaps it is good practice for our writing to react in unexpected ways in our real lives. I’m going to work on being less predictable.

    Liked by 1 person

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