Sunday, November 24, 2013

Revealing character through pressure

I've never been a big fan of "reality" TV competitions. I caught a couple of seasons of Survivor--mostly because I knew one of the contestants--but other than that, the only such show I've watched regularly is Top Chef. For some reason, I find it relaxing to watch people figure out how to, say, create an upscale lunch out of a piece of celery, an avocado and a can of tuna.* And the writer in me, who deals with creative challenges all day, thinks, "Well, at least I don't have to solve that problem."

Also, I find that while there is plenty of competition among the contestants and occasionally outright nastiness, the "cheftestants" generally treat one another better than contestants on Survivor. The main reason, I think, is that the chefs don't vote one another out of the contest; a panel of judges does that. Therefore, they don't have to spend all that energy plotting how to stab one another in the back.**

I much prefer when the conflict involves how to keep a fire going in high wind, or how to get a lot done in a short amount of time, and my favorite challenges are about preparing healthy foods that taste good (after all, as one of them once said, it's easy to make something taste good by throwing a lot of butter into it; what do you do when that isn't an option?). You get to see who can think on their feet, who has the deepest toolbox, and how people respond to criticism.

Every season, I'm surprised by the way people react to the pressure. The facades crumble, and some people shine while others get petty. Some people cry and others laugh. Some hug the people around them while others lash out.

While watching an episode the other night, it reminded me of how to use pressure in fiction--not only to create tension and move the plot, but also to reveal character. It's not realistic for characters to respond to every crisis with cool perfection and steely genius (unless maybe you're writing James Bond--but he's already taken). Let your characters get flustered, make mistakes, blame their troubles on someone else, cry, explode, and then--sometimes--pull a rabbit out of a hat.

*Not an actual Top Chef challenge, but you get the idea.

**I do wish that these shows didn't feel so beholden to the Survivor model of eliminating one contestant every week. We don't get to know the ones who leave early that well, and it's painful to see a favorite pack it in midway through the season. This has led to all sorts of challenges where previous contestants are brought back or given extra chances. So why not have a format where they don't get voted out each week, but instead accumulate points during the season, and those points determine who goes to the finale? It would be more like a sports season, with people competing for playoff spots. But I digress. Which is why I stuck this in a footnote.


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  2. I particularly like how a character's true self comes to light under a certain amount of pressure. I like seeing the facade broken.

    Once in a while, when I feel stuck with a character, I create a pressure test to see what could break them or behave differently. It doesn't necessarily go into the story I'm working on, but the reaction sometimes tends to reveal some truth about the character that I might have not envisioned earlier.

    Wishing you a lovely Thanksgiving holiday, Jenn!

    1. That is a great exercise!

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving yourself. :-)

  3. This was an interesting post to read, especially since my current WIP involves a reality TV show. I've found that in some shows, when the set up encourages drama among the contestants (e.g. The Bachelor, a show I haven't watched in a long time, btw), contestants can stab each other in the back in ways that won't be viewed as textbook "back stabbing" but still damaging to the target nonetheless.

    1. There are shows that really encourage fighting and deception between contestants. I tend to dislike those shows. But I am interested in the literature that is starting to spring up around reality shows, because I suspect sometimes what goes on off camera is its own story.