Smart Characters

Imagine this scene: there’s a guy walking around the parking lot. He’s carrying a crow bar, and avoiding the street lamps, where only a few light up the asphault. You decide to hide behind a car because you don’t want him to see you, and your heart is starting to skip while you try to breathe more shallow. Biting the inside of your cheek, you pray he doesn’t hear you.

Usually, that’s as far into a scene a writer will go. Then something silly will happen, the character will react, and everything goes to heck. I’m not saying everyone does this, but it’s usually the most common happening.

What I’m trying to show is that there’s another way to be skittish. You can be nervous but still be smart about the situation!

“The darkness beyond, however, made me wary…I picked up a stone and half threw, half rolled it onto the floor beyond those crushed double doors. It clacked and spun across the tile and disappeared from view. I heard no other sound, no movement, no suggestion of breathing beyond my own. Gun still drawn, I entered as quietly as I was able…” (Vandermeer 66)

To give you perspective, this was the biologist, and although she was trained for dangerous situations, going into some random environment with weird plants and animals, anybody can act like this! Characters can be smart. I thought this was a brilliant scene not only for her reaction, but the descriptions: the stone that clacked and spun.

I get a visual and an audio image which helps me construct the scene, and notice how it doesn’t focus on the whole scene – just a few pieces: crushed doors, the stone, and her gun. We’re not getting the whole inside of the location, but a few things that the character would notice in the moment.

It answers the questions: has someone been there before? Is anyone still here? How should I stay safe/prepared?

Keep this in mind when writing a scene, especially from first person. Write things your character would notice and include ways that would show they’re smart! Not all characters have to be dumb! (PS. I realize normal people wouldn’t be walking around with a gun, but if you’re in a life/death environment and are checking for people, this is a great thing to do! Keep this in mind for the zombie apocalypse.)

Vandermeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Print.

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One thought on “Smart Characters

  1. A really good point! I’ll add that in addition to showing smart characters, scenes like this are a great chance to work the character’s past into the present.

    That character skulking around in the dark could be throwing a stone because of something his dad taught or did. A character can know how to react to a bear attack because of an experience she had as a 10 year old camping in B.C. Your character’s smart reaction is a great way to tie in events from their past and from earlier in the story.

    Like

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