Anti-Survival Traits

Doomed. There’s just no getting around it. Some fictional characters just have it coming. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I don’t like them. In fact, some of the ones who shout, “Hey, guys, watch this…” are some of my favorites. Sure, there are characters who shuffle off their respective mortal coils in a rather forgettable manner. There are some special ones, however, whose inescapable demise claims the comfy chair in your memory and hogs the remote. It seems to me that there are a few common characteristics that the hysterically doomed share. I think of these as “Anti-Survival Traits” for the simple reason that the existence of one or more of these traits often ensures eventual and (sometimes) legendary destruction.

The first of these, of course, is Snarkiness. You know what I mean. It’s your mouth’s instinct to act in your own disinterest. Fictional characters afflicted with this trait can’t seem to help themselves. When everyone else knows that the best survival strategy is to shut up, this character will mouth off at the worst possible time.  It’s that uncontrollable urge to take an otherwise innocuous statement, infuse it with a snide tone, and drop it like a live mic. This is the guy in the back seat who waits until the officer is handing your license back to you to sneer, “Nice haircut…” In fact, the Snarky character’s best hope of survival is based on the hope that their target lacks the wit to get the joke.

Some characters also suffer from Coyote Syndrome. This is an unfortunately condition where the character is incapable of learning from past mistakes. While some may confuse this disability with Optimism, the differences are significant. For one thing, an Optimist will consider a dire situation, be fully aware of the shockingly low probability of a positive outcome and yet choose to remain hopeful. Fictional characters who suffer from Coyote Syndrome will consider the same situation and remain blissfully blind to the absolute certainty of disaster. It’s not that they think, “This time, maybe I won’t land on my head.” Instead, the inevitable and utterly predictable outcome never occurs to them. These characters exhibit genuine surprise each time they fall off of a cliff, miss the trampoline, or notice the growing shadow of an approaching boulder. Groups of people containing a CS character can usually be identified by their tendency to face palm. Where I come from, these characters are often accompanied by an onlooker who shakes their head and declares, “That boy just ain’t right.”

Enthusiasm is a positive and desirable characteristic. Ridiculous Enthusiasm, however, is the opposite. Characters with this unfortunate condition do not limit themselves to leaping before looking. They just leap. How deep is that hole? This character will let you know. They’re loud, pushy, oblivious to danger, and certain to become a cautionary tale. These characters spring into the face of Danger not because they are brave, but because they think, “What could possibly go wrong?” While the rest of the group has the sense to sneak quietly past the sleeping dragon, this clown will kick it in the nose. Oddly enough, this tactic does not always result in a sudden and dramatic departure from the land of the living. In some cases, the character escapes only because the hideously dangerous threat he faced simply could not believe he could be that stupid. These characters seek attention and are often the ones to shout, “Check this out, dude…” They are beautiful, in their own way. At least, their explosions are.

Curiosity is known to have offed a feline or two. Insane Curiosity takes self-destruction to whole new level. While other characters see the warning signs, frequently including words like, “Danger,” “Warning,” or “High Voltage,” Insanely Curious characters will disregard them. They are the button pushers. They will enter a mad scientist’s lair, stand on the big red X with a dozen lasers focused on them, and push the big red button. “What does this do?” are their most common last words. Unfortunately, the disastrous results frequently impact other people, leaving the Insanely Curious character free to see what the rest of the buttons will do. If/when there is a self-destruct button, this character will be the one to push it. While it may seem that this trait has more to do with the poor survival probabilities of their team, this character usually triggers their own demise in the end. While that may be of little comfort to the team members they’ve already disintegrated, it is a type of poetic justice.

Pride goes before a fall. This is a well-known truth. “Pompous Arrogance goes before a stain on the pavement,” may be a lesser known phrase. Characters displaying Pompous Arrogance take mere pride to extremes. Their displays of self-interest and conceit make even politicians and celebrities wince. They don’t simply feel that they are better and more important than everyone else, they know it. Even worse, they want to make sure that everyone else knows it. Nothing sets off a Pompously Arrogant character like encountering a Snarky character. Oddly, these two traits have a way of searching each other out, finding one another, and ending up seated at the same table at the reception. This character’s eventual unhappy end is often delayed, much to the dismay of everyone they meet. In many cases, characters with this trait will wait to go down in flames until the very last minute. Unlike the tragic deaths of other characters afflicted with various Anti-Survival Traits, the messy spot that marks the site of the Pompously Arrogant character’s departure is often widely celebrated.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list and I haven’t discussed the comically tragic potential when two or more of these traits coexist in the same person. I’ll leave that to your imagination. Mine is busy making snarky comments.


Get a (Fictional) Job

People have stuff. That guy over there has stuff. The woman in the SUV has her own stuff. Kids staring through the classroom windows have stuff. Sometimes, you look around and wonder, “How did this happen?” You might even ask, “How can I get stuff?”

If there’s one thing we learn in this world, it’s that getting stuff requires some amount of effort. Some people may need to expend more energy than others, but that’s the Law of Stuff. No, that’s not fair and equal. It’s not always fun or entertaining. It may not fulfill one’s personhood. In order to get stuff, one needs to get a job.

Hey, even fictional characters are subject to the Law of Stuff. Somebody has to blow up the massive space station before it can destroy the rebel base. Someone has to guide those furry footed characters through the wilderness in an attempt to destroy some special jewelry. When everything is falling apart, the enemy is closing, and almost all hope is gone, somebody has to give the captain a wee bit more power out of those engines. That blue box isn’t going to fly itself, you know. Being the lord of the jungle is not all fun and games. Somebody has to escort this guy through the zombie horde. I’m sorry, but somebody has to wear the red shirt in this landing party.

Just like real people, some fictional characters are defined by their careers. It might be difficult to picture them doing anything else but their “proper” job. What if that barbarian decides that a career as a mid level manager in an insurance company might be more fulfilling? A starship pilot might dream of someday owning his own ostrich ranch. A mad scientist may tire of blowing up his lab and decide to abandon world conquest in favor of working at a phone kiosk at the mall. If these characters change what they do, will it change who they are? (My characters hate it when I start asking those questions because it usually means that they’re about to get a call from HR.)

So, when fictional folks start complaining about their lot in life, I just remind them that we are all subject to these pressures. I empathize with them and assure them that I understand. I help them analyze their feelings on the matter. I offer the best advice I can give. In the end, I wish them well, and tell them to go get a (fictional) job. It’s the Law of Stuff, you understand. That’s how it works.

Too Stupid

There’s a line.  You don’t always know where it is, but you know when you’ve crossed it.  A certain amount of stupidity is tolerable, and may even be expected.  We assume that a degree of “Duh…” is “normal” in many situations.  The line between an acceptable amount of Goober-hood and “That boy just ain’t right” may vary depending on the circumstances.  One might tolerate less boneheadery in an operating room than in a bait shop.

Wherever humans go, we bring our capacity for legendary stupidity with us.  “Hey, guys!  Watch this!” has preceded many a pathetically inept demonstration of “anti-intelligence.”  It goes beyond obvious pratfalls and gravity miscalculations to include jaw dropping shrieks of, “What is wrong with you?”  No other species we know of considers “Are you an Idiot?” to be a rhetorical question.

So, the question is, how much stupid is right for characters in a story?  Can you see that character making that empty-headed decision in that circumstance?  Is the situation itself just too asinine for the book?  Sometimes I think about the role of the stupid in the story.

Some stories feature a nonsensical scenario and the characters must grapple with the absurd.  In these cases, the character stands out as an everyman character, reacting in an increasingly extreme situation.  Others feature zany characters which place the reader in the role of the “sane” person.  Some stories may make the reader feel superior to the characters by comparison.  In some tales, the buffoonery may play a central role whereas in others, it may merely provide color.

When I’m writing a particularly idiotic pile of words, I often wonder if this particular scene is “too stupid.”  Does it cross the line between “so stupid it’s funny” and “so stupid it lowered my IQ?”  If I can’t tell the difference, is the damage permanent?

Anytime I grow overly concerned about the depth of the overwhelming idiocy within my characters, I stop writing and look around at the world around me.  It’s important to pull my head out of my imaginary world and reorient on reality for a time.  After watching how real human beings move through their world, I no longer have any concern about the stupidity in my own.

Character Bio: Numnel Worthington

You’re probably a mammal.  Most humans are.  Until recently, humanity was 100% mammalian.  Numnel messed up that statistic.

It wasn’t his fault.  The National Association of People who Form Associations for No Apparent Purpose, Office of Mammalian Classification (NAPFANAP/OMC) revoked his status as a mammal.  They sent a form letter and everything.

He should be used to it.  This sort of thing happens to him all the time.  Anyone else in his situation might find this upsetting.  In Numnel’s experience, this twist of Normality is rather normal.  Every so often, Reality has a tendency to yank the rug out from under him and toss a pie in his face.  After all this time, he’s become somewhat accustomed to it.  The wolves who raised him taught him to accept life as it comes.  Granted, they also taught him that running triggers their hunting instinct.

Numnel doesn’t know why these things keep happening to him.  The question doesn’t really concern him.  It probably should, though.  They  probably have something to do with it.  I mean, the “They” people refer to when referring to an unknown group.  Them.  One or more of Them appears to have it in for Numnel.  From Their position in the Prime Universe, They can manipulate his universe.  That’s not a good thing.  His universe is in danger as long as he’s in it.  Fortunately, that peril will be short lived.  They’ll see to that.