Characterisation and the car crash

MotorwaySome musings on writing. Let’s start with three examples:

1. I was in a road traffic accident the other day. I didn’t suffer any injuries, though my car may not be repairable. Unfortunately it was my birthday.

2. I had an interesting birthday. Got into a car crash on the motorway. Not a scratch on me but my car is on its way to vehicle heaven.

3. I was in the middle of a five car pile-up in the fast lane of the motorway. The car was minced front and back but I managed to get out alive. Some birthday present that was.

Three examples above of describing the same incident. They represent a simple exercise in characterisation, taking the same dramatic incident (a plot point if you like) and showing something about character in the way the incident is described.

So number one is dry and dull. He pushes his spectacles up a greasy nose with his index finger. He likes facts, works with numbers. Some people suspect he may be on the spectrum.

Number 2 is friendly and happy to tell the story, but look a bit closer. Is he/she using humour to disguise the emotion of the event. Is there some underplaying of the drama here?

Number 3 is angry, look at that word ‘minced’. He/she is wringing the most from this. They’ve probably gone down their local boozer, because you can be sure this type of person has a boozer, in order to tell their story. They’re a bit hardcore, but bursting for sympathy.

So far, so obvious. A character’s reaction to an event can be a good way of elucidating or reinforcing what type of person they are (and let’s face it, how they don’t react tells us about them too).

But wait. What about the reaction to the reaction? How people respond to the way the information is given by Character A can not only shed light on THEIR character, but also on character A. In other words, the relationship between the two characters, how they react to each other can be as important as what either of them says or does.

What if Number 1 goes home to his mum and tells the story as above. Her response is panic, she insists they go down to the Emergency Department to get him checked out. What does that say about her? What does that say about their relationship? You could play it lots of different ways, all of them interesting.

And what if Number 3 walks into his boozer, tells his story to his mates a few times over a couple of pints and they sympathise. Then he goes home to his wife. Tells his story. She says: “Well, you’re still standing and you’ve had drink, so don’t be expecting me to wait on you hand and foot.”
What does that tell us about them? Does it explain why he stopped at the pub first? Where do our sympathies lie – with him or do we fill in and side with her?

I should come clean at this point. I did have a real-life car crash on my birthday last week. I posted something on my personal Facebook page which was pretty similar to Number two above. And as a result of that slightly underplayed, slightly humorous ‘nothing much to see here’ post I got some very telling reactions, which illustrated something about the character of the poster, about their relationship with me and about how I had described the event.

One person mentioned how the incident itself might make a good storyline and maybe they were right. But for me the writing lesson here is about characterisation, reinforcing my belief that strong characters are built not just from what they say and do, but also their relationships with others and how they are perceived by other characters.