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 😀 ).
- 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 🙂 ) 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!