Character Dynamics in “The Road To Mars”

The Road To Mars follows, for the most part, a trio of characters (trying to be #SPOILERfree here). There’s Darion, my protagonist; Jack, the “thief”; and the Shepherd, my larger-than-life visitor from Mars. Each has his own agenda. Each is searching for something. And each may or may not take issue with someone in the group; unbeknownst to that person.

I know because I wrote it that way.

When I began fleshing out The Road To Mars, I envisioned it like a really bad family vacation. Nobody likes going somewhere – especially far away – with someone they don’t like. Or someone they’re not too familiar with. The Road To Mars is all about unfamiliar travel. Mars, by itself, is already an unknown landscape. But, in my story, it’s a haven. An escape. A place Darion wants to be. He wants out of the mess the Earth is in. The Pulse has damaged Earth with clouds that sap light and energy. The Earth, as far as Darion is concerned, is a lost cause. So he’s trying hard to leave it behind and get to Mars. Not just for himself, but for his daughter as well.

Jack, on the other hand, is more like a baby bird fallen from its nest. He’s survived the fall – survived the Pulse – but now he’s alone. Nobody is looking out for him. Until he meets Darion. And then, ultimately, the Shepherd of Mars. Jack has had little direction in life. He’s a got a bad seed in him, you might say. But, meeting Darion has given him direction. And the Shepherd has given him hope. Two things he’d never had before; and important to any person.

As for the Shepherd, his mere existence defies logic. He’s huge – more than seven feet tall. He’s built like an Olympic gymnast and speaks like he’s lived 10 lifetimes. Yet, all that power and wisdom is a cause for concern. Even for Darion, whose entire journey has been about finding said Shepherd. No man can be all these things in one. There must be a catch or something hidden. But, Darion – and Jack – are willing to see whatever that is till the end.

What I’ve just told you is incredibly important to any story: character dynamics. As much as I like the mythology in The Lord of the Rings and the universe where Harry Potter resides, I know neither of these stories would be worth their weight in salt if it weren’t for the characters. Where they come from. How they interact. Who they are driven to be next to. Or be in conflict with – all are imperative. For the characters push the plot. Push the agenda. And keep your audience interested till the end (Writer’s Digest has a good tutorial on this very topic).

For The Road To Mars I wanted to get this as right as possible. Each of my characters needed to feel natural. Needed to have predictable behaviors, yet be thrown into unpredictable circumstances. For it’s the unusual scenarios where development happens. Characters become more than a name on a page – they become (almost) like real people. Someone you or I can relate to. It’s key to telling any good story. And it’s key to transforming a book from I-read-five-chapters-now-I’m-done to, “Hey, when does the next one come out?”

I, for one, prefer the latter.

Pressure: Role Models and Writing

This may come as a surprise to some, but we tend to adopt certain traits and behaviors from the people we meet. Especially if the person is in a leadership role. But, the absorption process isn’t as simple as dipping a dry sponge in a bucket of water. We pick and choose model behaviors based on what we deem as admirable or attractive. Then we envision ourselves doing the things they do, operating in a manner that is reflective of what we are seeing. And we experiment to find out if what works for them, will in turn, work for us.

For example, when I was little, I wanted to be like Michael Jordan (and what kid didn’t?!). I read up on his training regimen, I tried to learn his moves, and I did my best to hone in on what made Air Jordan so great. I never did make it to the pros but I did adopt plenty of Mike’s attitudes along the way: don’t give up, strive to win, see who you want to be before you begin, etc. – all were applicable character-builders in my eyes. Mr. Jordan operated – at least on the ball court – like a successful guy and yes, I wanted to “be like Mike” too.

However, his off-the-court troubles have been hard to swallow as I’ve followed his career. As an athlete, he’s the best – driven, competitive, talented and applies himself – but as a husband and father, he hasn’t always had the best rep. And both are positions holding great authority in the most intimate of places: at home and with family.

Mr. Jordan has probably faced absurd amounts of pressure as an athlete, but he’s also faced a ton more in his personal life. Every leader, every role model, faces similar pressures. But, sometimes when you’re a leader, being the proper role model can often be an afterthought. “Let me get to where I want to go first” is the mindset – then, “I’ll worry about what people think of me” comes later. But, the two go alongside one another. A person who wants to have influence, but thinks a good leader means being a good delegator is a fool. Leadership is an act of service, and is done from the ground-up, not top-down. The eyes of the ones you lead aren’t watching you with awe because you’re in charge, they’re watching you and looking for consistency of character and clear goals and objectives. That’s all about role modeling and very little about delegating to your subordinates.

So there’s more pressure with being a decent role model than one may anticipate. Or perhaps it’s better to understand the perspective that people are always looking for strong role models, seeking out proper and good authority even when they don’t even realize it. Eager eyes watching and absorbing what you do like a sponge – hopeful you have the right gusto to serve them and not just yourself.

As a writer, learning how to be a better role model is huge. A person’s actions and words have great weight in the world and if you’re a writer, you’re basically in the business of both. You can write on a topic – any you wish – but the catch is that people’s expectations will increase. You have to live out what you write about; what you choose to be an authority on is what you must ultimately own in your own life. Otherwise, it’s like making a proclamation to hit a home run without ever having swung a bat in your life. But, here’s the good news: you can train ahead of time. It’s not like you have to bat without first taking a hitting lesson. You can still prepare; you can still train; and you can still seek out others who have done things well – modeling their attitudes, their practices, and their character. That way, some of that pressure can come off.

And when you’re a writer, that’s something to rejoice over.

 

 

 

How Much Pressure Do You Face?

Pressure can be a cruel thing.

As a noun, pressure functions in two ways: first, as “a persistent physical force exerted upon or against another object that it is contact with” or secondly, as “the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.”

As a verb, pressure functions like this: “any attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something.”

Basically, whether it’s being used as a person, place, thing, or action – pressure is defined in one way: to throw off the balance of whatever it is in contact with. And it does so from the outside, but the level at which it is pressing is defined by what’s on the inside. Not the other way around. In other words, whatever pressure you find yourself under, it’s often blown into the proportion that you – yourself – have made it to be. Your expectations are causing you duress – not the thing you must accomplish or succeed against. And that’s a key understanding to have when you’re talking about or dealing with pressure. That whatever you feel is pushing against you – whatever you feel is dominating your existence – well, it starts with your flag in the ground. A strong stake in the dirt can weather those onslaughts and keeps a person from thinking he needs to avoid every bit of pressure that comes his way. So beating pressure is not about avoidance, but about influence – influence over our own mind.

And hey, that’s good news because you can at least control your own thoughts day-to-day.

You don’t have much control over life anyway, right? Life is not a movie called ‘You’ and life will go on regardless if you have a good day or not. So having a desire for perfection – specifically in one’s own self – is a fool’s game. You may be able to perfect certain areas of life like, a great golf swing or making a solid chili recipe. But to place the same expectation on one’s own self – in its entirety – is never a good plan. Wholeness of one’s own being should be the goal; not perfection. A wholeness of self will handle pressure like a feather landing on your shoulder; not the brick you may be accustomed to.

Life will always pushing back in some way so it’s best to have a firm stance where you’re at. What does that look like practically? It begins in the mind. As a writer, I struggle with a need for perfection in my writing. If I’m not careful, I can spend a good hour mulling over a single paragraph. And when I’m done mulling, I find I am still not satisfied. Why? Well, imagine the mental spiral that follows: Why’d you do that; That took too long; you should have went with your gut; look at all the time you’ve wasted; you’ll never get this done… and so on. Yes – not good.

But it’s not the need for perfection in the sentence that does me in – no, it’s typically the pressure I place on myself – caused by that mental implosion. That absolute need for me to be perfect comes out because I’ve led myself to believe that if I can be perfect, then I can produce a perfect work. A root problem most people experience as they try to complete the tasks set before them, but few recognize the issue as being from internal duress.

“I have so much against me everyday….”

“I am under so much pressure….”

“If only things were easier at my job….”

I’m not downplaying any one person’s situation. This is strictly fundamental and getting back to basics – how you perceive yourself in any situation is likely how you’ll respond, react, and take action. And if you’re having a hard time about it, how do you combat it? In my case, I’ve started learning how to halt this pressure – this unneeded, unwarranted, and unsolicited pressure – and consider how I am bringing myself into my work. Basically, training myself mentally. My work doesn’t require me to be perfect – it merely requires that I follow through with clarity; clarity that I have done all I can and if I haven’t, I’ll learn what I need for next time. Today’s culture struggles with this lack of commitment to go full force and with that – a HUGE fear of failure. Every duck need be aligned; every piece set; and every avenue walked before taking that said step – or even the littlest of said steps. Our lives are on a social platform now and the world is watching us, we feel. So unless we have a sense of wholeness and mental discipline about ourselves – that one failure does not define us – we are sunk before we even cast off from shore.

And “too much pressure” will always be an easy out whenever we cop out. A sense of wholeness should be our goal; not the need for absolute perfection – the latter of which will leave us staggered under the pressure we feel and robbed of any joy in the work we produced. A cruel concept when you think about it.

Everyone Has Unique Struggles

Every person in the world has a story to tell. And every person in the world has a different struggle to overcome. I’m honestly humbled by this reality; it’s a truth of life in case you were wondering. No man or woman alive today leads a perfect existence. There’s a definite push and pull in the universe and that same push and pull is occurring just below the surface of every person. It’s happening deep within, close to the heart, and everywhere in between. That’s a fact. So as this story of mine comes to a close, I’m experiencing a hardship of my own: creating a proper struggle for my character. Weird problem to have, is it not?

The reason for this conundrum? I’m convinced that we live in an age of bad writing. Shock value supersedes pure value; predictable and familiar is more welcome than unpredictable and unfamiliar; and the concept of “making it” only applies to writers who have had their works transformed into film. No fault of theirs, but 99% of the time I tell people how I’m finishing up a story, the first question I get asked is this – to my chagrin – something like this: “Do you think it’ll be a movie someday?” To which I reply, “Good Lord, if it does, I hope to have some serious say in how it translates.”

Spirit Run has really made me consider what it takes to make a decent character; specifically one who has a dilemma worth resolving. Every great story has a conflict that’s needs resolution. The questions I have to answer – as a writer – are how to present that conflict, how to get there, and how to go about resolving said conflict. You can stick to the basics, but ultimately, you have to consider what hasn’t been done before. I perform this calculation anytime a new idea poses itself. Does the problem make sense? Is the character exciting to me? Do I care to see what happens to him or her? If my answers end up being ‘no’, I move elsewhere. But if I’m intrigued by where it might be headed, I press on.

The main character of Spirit Run has no name; something I leave ambiguous for my own reasons, but she definitely has a struggle to overcome. And it’s a struggle that’s unique to her, but altogether relevant to the reader too. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish with this story. Create something new, something different but something familiar too. A unique struggle if I ever had one.