The Find: Discovering what characters care about
Christmas Eve means Silverado. It has since I was twelve and it will until I’m dead. For the rest of my siblings, the tradition of watching this (to be honest, average) Western late on Christmas Eve night has gone into the bin with all the other trappings of childhood. I’m twenty-eight, well past the days when it was reasonable for me to entertain extended bouts of childhood fancy, and yet I still go into every Christmas season, slogging through White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life and all the vast catalogue of classic Christmas films, all while keeping my heart turned fully toward Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and the Kevins, Costner and Kline, shooting it out Magnificent Seven-style with some bad ranchers in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
There’s a line in that film that sticks out to me. Kevin Kline’s character Paden is sitting in a saloon while his friends are preparing to take the fight to the ranchers. The woman running the saloon knows Paden should be out there too but something is holding him back. She says, “There’s no telling what you’re gonna care about.” Paden throws her a glance that says it’s her. That if he steps out of the saloon, her life is in danger. Of course, it all works out and Paden gets to shoot a few bad guys along with everyone else. But the important thing is that idea of the things characters care about, especially when common sense says they shouldn’t.
This is a concept I’ve called The Find. It’s called a bunch of other things, but I call it The Find (for trademark purposes, because this is my retirement plan). I teach it in improv classes and in composition classes and in creative writing workshops as a way of establishing characters or, in the case of college essays, honing the thesis. It has become equally useful as a way to flesh out characters and discover landmarks in a plot. The basic idea is this: find one thing, the more seemingly innocuous the better, and then walk each character in front of it and write about their response.
What you’ll discover is that, while one character may see the item or event as meaningless, another might recognize it as the key to their success. Take for example the mosquito in amber, discovered at the beginning of Jurassic Park. We see a mosquito and we may have a variety of responses, but it is rare that we would see one and think: $$$. Richard Hammond sees that mosquito and thinks: dinosaur park. Had the team found, instead of a mosquito, a living breathing T-rex, the responses would have been too limited. It’s the wide range of possibilities that something as seemingly insignificant as a mosquito presents that makes it a great entry point to the film.
In our writing, we have to discover what makes a character react, especially disproportionately to other characters. Everyone reacts in the expected way when they see the Zapruder film or a YouTube compilation of puppies yawning. But imagine if your character, watching the Zapruder film, could only think of the irreparable damage done to the upholstery of the car, or if your character could only focus on the teeth of those puppies. These are things the common person wouldn’t care about, and the common reaction has no place in literature. We want people who act outside the norm, who see the world through a lens that they’ve developed through unique experiences. It’s hard to develop a character from scratch, one that feels lived-in and real. But by discovering how that character reacts to given stimuli, we can find motivations that we never knew our characters had.
I’m writing a novella that started as a joke. At first it was a series of fake book covers using stock photos of bearded men on motorcycles, and then I started to write blurbs for the back cover, and now I’ve written over twenty pages of the thing. It all broke loose when I got fixated on the motorcycle and asked myself, “What if someone stole the motorcycle?” Now I have the beginning of a less-than-serious novel about a man on a desperate search for his bike as he’s hunted by several shadowy figures and subprime government agencies looking for the same bike, all for different reasons. The bike made the story explode from a two-dimensional image to a full story. It isn’t destined to be a classic, but I’m having more fun writing this than I have many of the stories I’ve come up with in the last year.
That’s the most important thing The Find can do, get the writer invested in the writing. We want to know how far this impetus can take us. If a mosquito can be the start of the resurgence of dinosaurs (and a film franchise that has made its participants millions), then what can a typically overlooked object that appears in your character’s line of sight do to expand the scope of your story? A character must have something to react to, and their reactions will show what makes them unique. Rather than create a character by cobbling together a bunch of unique attributes that have become cliched by their overuse (looking at you, sexual deviancy and sons fearing they’ll never be as cool as their dads), discover your characters by having them react to the world around them in honest ways.
I’m still not sure why I’m the one who can’t stop watching Silverado on Christmas Eve while the rest of my siblings seem less and less enthused with each passing year, but I pursue that desire because it reminds me that each character has unique responses to the things they experience. If I let those things fall away, the characters lose the spark that makes them worth writing about. And that, like Kevin Kline missing the chance to shoot it out with a bunch of bad guys, would be a real tragedy.