Catastrophic natural disasters happen all the time.
Hurricane Harvey has dominated the news over the last week, but it is only one of several natural disasters affecting and displacing people around the world. As terrible as Harvey has been for Texas (now accounting for 44 deaths and dozens still missing at last count), the monsoon that hit Napal, India, and Bangladesh last week killed over 1,200 and made millions homeless.
Currently, fires scorch the western U.S. and Canada, threatening thousands of homes while smoking up several states. Our small town at the foot of the Oregon Cascades sits in a valley where smoke accumulates and has made life miserable the last month—we are surrounded by several fires burning the forested canyons where biking and hiking are normally the call-of-the-day.
Disasters magnify the human condition in the suffering and peoples’ response to events beyond their control. Over the next days and weeks stories of bravery and tragedy will underscore the disasters—those instances are fiction’s ripe fruit.
Fiction is all about people in conflict, whether with themselves, other people, circumstances, or nature; disasters and a character’s reaction can include and embody all simultaneously.
Uncountable movies and books use disasters as their catalyst, and in some cases the events comprise the entire plot. Contemplating the disasters inundating us on the daily news, I realized I have never used a natural disaster in my own writing.
Perhaps character “motivation” is so deeply ingrained in my plot development—the how’s and why’s they react—is why I have never used an “act of nature” in my stories; I’m not sure.
The world impacts my characters (my MC hurtling over a waterfall, for example), but the cause of such action was another character’s betrayal and a bit of bad luck. Weather has certainly affected my characters, and the climate hints at a character’s mental state or the perception I want my reader to experience.
The magnitude of natural disasters and the lives affected are often lost on us as we have become complacent due to the sheer volume we read and hear about. But when writing, we leave our aerial view of the world and swoop down onto the shoulder and into the minds of our characters and their reactions to the world around (and within) them.
This is how it should be.
Writing about a natural disaster can be a doorway into a deeper understanding of a character’s motivations and reactions. Think of a macho-man cowering and polarized by fear during an earthquake, or a young female store clerk who risks her life to save a drowning puppy: each instance speaks to who these people really are beyond the persona they exhibit under normal situations.
I remember in the Kevin Costner movie, The Guardian, where as a Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician, he drops from a helicopter into a raging sea to save a drowning couple. During the ordeal the husband is only interested in his own survival: the Costner character has to punch the man to calm him, and after the rescue, the wife’s reaction to her husband’s cowardice is classic.
People act differently during duress than they think (or hope) they would. My dad always said, “No matter how you think you would react, you don’t know what you’ll do until a person puts a gun to your head.” He was right.
As a writer, you need to know how your character will react. Even if you don’t plan a natural disaster in a story, knowing a character’s reaction to all sorts of stimuli will give you—and, thereby, your reader—a better understanding of a character’s many facets.
Fiction is about people and how they respond to calamity.
As an exercise, put one of your favorite characters into a natural disaster and see how they react. Add that to your Character Sketch. Even if you do not use what you write, it will give you a better understanding and will help “round out” your understanding of the character.
See you on the next page,
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