A lot of the time, if you look up examples of establishing character moments, you get the big, flashy ones. The iconic picture that isn’t shy about showing you what sort of person you’re following into the story.
Think of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, blowing himself backwards from the sound force of the giant guitar amp he was trying out.
Peter Quill’s dance sequence with his headphones on at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Doctor, rescuing Rose, briefly introducing himself, and telling her to run for her life before blowing up the building.
And all those are awesome in their own ways. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with a well-done characteristic moment, they’re one of my favorite things.
But today, I just want to point out something I realized in the Pilot episode of Lost: That your biggest moment of showing who your character is and why your readers should like them doesn’t necessarily have to be a big, flashy thing.
So, my example here is following one of the central characters of Lost, and the main character of the first episode, Jack Shepherd.
The Pilot episode (a little ironically) involves the aftermath of a plane crash. Everyone realizing they’re stranded on this island now, dealing with injuries, and trying to figure out what to do next to try and speed their rescue.
At first glance, Jack’s big character moment seems pretty obvious. He’s a doctor, and right after he wakes up, flung a little ways out into the jungle, he quickly heads back to the wreckage and proceeds to save lives and help out as many people as he can. He pulls wreckage off of someone who’s trapped underneath, he helps a pregnant woman, he gives another woman CPR…. in general a lot of helping.
And really, by itself, that’s not a bad characteristic moment.
But there was a much smaller thing that, to me, really stood out as showing Jack’s character much better than all his grand gestures of heroism in saving people.
His reaction to being handed some pens.
Let me explain that a little.
So one of his many good deeds on the beach in the wreckage was giving a lady CPR. When he first came up, he met Boone, a younger guy who was already trying to give her CPR in an incorrect way. He takes over to do CPR the correct way, and has an exchange with Boone where Boone says that if this doesn’t work, they could maybe use a pen to open her airway.
Clearly Jack has other things going on at the moment and just sort of dismisses Boone to go see if he can find a pen. Boone runs off and shortly after, Jack gets the woman breathing again, and moves on to other helpful things. Such as getting people away from the giant explosion that happens.
So after that, things quiet down just a little bit.
We get slower shots of Jack wandering through the wreckage and coming to a stop to look at the gutted out cabin of the plane with some slow, dramatic music playing. Just sort of showing how it’s sinking in for him how much trouble they’re all in and the “oh my gosh this is really happening”. A very somber moment.
And then Boone comes breathlessly running up with a handful of pens, holds them out to Jack and says “here, I didn’t know which one worked best.”
By itself, an excellent funny moment.
And Jack would have been fully justified in giving an eyeroll or a snarky comment in response. Maybe pointing out that he handled the situation quite well without the help of pens a good while ago. Or they have much bigger problems now. And that wouldn’t have been bad, necessarily.
But instead of saying any of those things, Jack simply takes the pens, gives Boone as much of a smile as he can manage at the moment, and thanks him, saying that they’re all good.
Clip of this scene here if you want to watch:
But seriously, I just love the subtlety of this moment.
You can clearly see this is when all the emotions are sinking in for Jack. When he’s feeling most afraid and helpless now that he actually has a moment to think, realizing how much trouble they’re in.
Even then, he’s enough of a big-picture-thinker that he realizes they’re all in this together, and they’re not going to get anywhere by chipping at each other. So he takes the smallest opportunity where kindness isn’t required, and he takes the time to make Boone feel good about his efforts.
Seeing something like this near the beginning is really what makes you root for Jack. Because even in the smallest details, and even when lives aren’t at stake, he tries to do the right thing. And that’s very well established right at the beginning.
So yeah. Just something to take into consideration with writing your characteristic moments.
The best spot to show what sort of a person your character really is isn’t always in a big, grand display. Sometimes just their response to something very small can show us even more about them.
Anyway. That’s my bit for the day, and my attempted dive back in to the world of writing helpful writing-advice posts.
Hope you guys enjoyed! Tell me in the comments if there are any other things you’d like me to do some how-tos on, or more things you’d like me to study. Also chime in with some of your favorite characteristic moments you’ve seen! Were there some that surprised you?
Have a great rest of your Monday, everyone!