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The True Test of Character

Flickr Creative Commons: Rangga Rr

I love survival stories. Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica, Uruguayan soccer players in the Andes, plane crash survivors in New Guinea—I’ve read and loved them all.  (The books about those stories are Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, Alive, by Piers Paul Read, and Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff.) Aside from the fact that survival stories are the best possible thing to read when you’re sick (so you have a cold? It’s not scurvy! And you’re not trapped inside a tent in gale force winds where it’s 30 below and there’s nothing to eat but seal blubber!), they’re also a wonderful window into character and how people respond in extreme circumstances. And since the best novels are about ordinary characters running up against unexpected obstacles, be they icebergs or aliens or a husband’s surprise announcement that he wants a divorce, survival stories are a good road map for how to draw believable characters.

What I learned:

Human nature is full of surprises. Ernest Shackleton was a bull of a man with a quick temper and little patience for fools. Yet he had a gift for managing people—something that proved invaluable when he and his men were marooned in Antarctica after fierce ice crushed their ship in the Weddell Sea. During the 15-plus months they were stranded, Shackleton did everything he could to keep his men united. He did his share of every chore, no matter how menial, and insisted everyone get the same rations and do the same work, no matter their class or rank. He held poker games and played phonograph music to alleviate boredom, and even shared his tent with the three most troublesome personalities on the expedition so he could keep them in check. He finally sailed a lifeboat more than 1,000 miles to get help. Every single man survived.

When faced with what seems like an insurmountable obstacle, how will your characters react? What unexpected things will they do?

Putting people in strange settings gives them a chance to grow. When a bunch of 19-year-old soccer players found themselves alone in the Andes with little food, shelter, or means to melt snow for water, some curled up and waited to die and some immediately started searching for ways to get help. And the “natural leaders” weren’t necessarily the ones who took charge in this bizarre and unexpected setting. What will your characters do if they find themselves in a different world?

People form unusual alliances under duress. Look at the friendship that develops between Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf in Lord of the Rings, for example. Which of your characters might be drawn closer together in tough times? Why? What conditions or circumstances might blow them apart?

I’m pondering all of these as I navigate my early way through my work-in-progress. Because after all, isn’t writing a novel a survival story of its own?

Have observations on survival stories? What are your favorites, and what do you take from them?


About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.