Superstorm Sandy wreaked untold devastation on many communities in New Jersey and New York. People lost everything—sometimes including loved ones. The destruction is almost too much to wrap your head around. It is, in places, apocalyptic.
I am not the first one to look at Sandy and see elements of story come to life. Others have commented that this has shown how a post-apocalyptic world might be, when it comes to world-building. And the thousands of news stories coming out of the disaster zone hand us plots on a platter.
But I am more interested in character. Stories of heroism and of compassion abound. People with power running power strips outside their houses so people without could charge their phones. Crews from all over the country arriving, leaving their families for weeks, to restore power and phone lines. Aid in the form of money and clothes and other items has poured in for people who have nothing. There is something about a natural disaster that brings out the best in people.
There is also something that brings out the worst. People preying on the fears of victims. People robbing decimated houses, knowing the police were busy elsewhere. People looking to make a buck off the distress of others.
What’s the difference between those two types of people? Character. Something in their backstory made them react the way they did. The interesting thing for a writer is figuring out the what and the why. Because two people could experience the same type of event in their backstory and emerge as very different people.
For instance, take two characters who grew up in poverty yet manage to achieve success in their lives. One might take her success and give back to others, determined to alleviate the suffering of people in poverty. The other might take his success and use it to keep furthering his monetary goals, ruthlessly preying on anyone he can, because he is determined never to suffer poverty again.
Same childhood event + different reactions = different characters
Making your characters unique and alive means knowing not just HOW your character would react to any given situation, but WHY. If you understand the why, then their reactions will be consistent throughout the story. Just like any person, your character’s reactions will be colored by their backstory and nuanced by their worldview.
This is why putting your character under pressure is the best way to show a character and his character growth. You don’t need it to be a natural disaster like Sandy, but stress causes true colors to show.
Put your characters in distress and see what happens. They might surprise you—just like real people do.